Finding the lighter side of WFH: virtual commute anyone?

Working from home has undeniable benefits. As a working mum of two, it gives me more flexibility than I’ve ever had. Because I’m no longer commuting, I’m always back for the kids’ bedtime. However, despite the positives, working from home during a pandemic, in a third national lockdown, poses some unique challenges. While many of my team are fine and just getting on with things, others are grappling with the lack of social interaction, the suspension of ‘normal’ life and the uncertainty of the year ahead. If left unchecked, this could have serious repercussions for their mental wellbeing, happiness and productivity. But how can you really tell if someone is struggling when your only interaction with them might be over video call? What are the signs you should be looking out for, and what can you do to foster mental wellbeing in your team?


Look for changes

According to Jon Manning, founder of mental health consultancy Arthur Ellis, if one of your team is having a hard time, you’re likely to notice psychological, physical or social changes. Perhaps they’re asking more probing questions than usual or using more negative language, or they might seem more apathetic or even flippant, all suggesting a lack of motivation. Physical signs can be more difficult to spot when you’re working remotely, but Jon suggests watching out for marked changes in someone’s appearance or even background on video calls. Are they taking less care of themselves than usual or are there piles of dishes mounting up behind them? Social cues could be someone becoming more withdrawn, consistently missing or being late for team calls or never turning on their camera. Someone experiencing a major rupture in their personal life such as the breakdown of a relationship or a bereavement could also be susceptible to mental health issues, so it’s important to keep an eye on them. One isolated change isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, but if in doubt, it’s better to ask the person how they are rather than wonder if everything’s OK. Really listen to what they have to say and ask what support they need. They may be reluctant to tell you what’s wrong, but knowing that they can and that you’re there to listen is what counts. I also find that sharing my own personal challenges establishes common ground and encourages people to open up.


Prioritise wellbeing

Rather than reacting to mental health issues when they arise, experts recommend taking preventive action that will protect your team’s wellbeing in the first place. According to Deloitte, employee mental health initiatives that are focused on prevention or designed to build employee resilience tend to be more effective and deliver greater returns.

Some form of physical activity is a good place to start and can give your team’s mental wellbeing a healthy boost. Getting out into the fresh air and exercising raises energy levels, improves cognitive function and makes people feel better. A group of academics agrees and recommends people do a pretend commute during lockdown for daily exercise and to create a clear distinction between home and work life.

In winter, it can be difficult for people to get outdoors while it’s still light. Going for a walk to relieve stress at the end of the working day isn’t always practical, so the key is to encourage your team to make time in their schedule. That might mean giving employees extended lunch breaks or diarising exercise time. I regularly book ‘walking meetings’ with my team: doing a lap of the park while chatting on the phone offers a welcome break from the intensity of video calls too. Collaboration tools have been our lifeline during the pandemic but it’s important to switch off from the screen from time to time.


Build connections

According to Yale and Stanford academic Emma Seppälä, Ph.D, author of The Happiness Track, people who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression.

Building social connections is that much easier when you’re in the office; catch ups at the coffee machine, chats in the corridor, a quick drink after work are all part of normal working life. And you can usually see if someone on your team is more stressed than normal.

These opportunities to communicate diminish when you’re working from home, and it can be difficult to know how people are really feeling.

You have to make a conscious effort to encourage personal connections and to stop people becoming isolated. This is more important than ever right now given government restrictions on social mixing. I regularly check in with my team on an individual basis, especially people who I know have a lot on their plate or who live alone, and I build in time at the start of calls for a general catch-up. Not everyone is comfortable chatting on the phone, so I also use instant messaging to keep the channels of communication open.


Model healthy behaviours

Arguably, you can only look after your team’s mental wellbeing when you look after your own. Also, modelling healthy behaviour shows your team that it’s OK to prioritise self-care and set boundaries.

I try and lead by example. As a working mum of two young kids with home schooling in the mix, early mornings and early afternoons can be the hardest while the next task is set up; I block them out on my calendar so that no one arranges meetings, and I let my team know that if I’m needed, the phone is the only route. I hope this shows them that working flexibly around other commitments is both possible and accepted.

One of the challenges of working from home is that it can be all-consuming and people end up working longer hours than usual – four extra hours per week, finds new research – which can lead to burnout.

Without the structure of office life, before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the day and have barely left your desk, which might also double as the kitchen table or a shared work space for the whole family. I am very open about taking breaks when I’m having a tough day, and I hope my team will be inspired to do likewise.


Put people first

The pandemic has changed life and work, creating new challenges for businesses and putting new demands on leaders to support their teams in new ways. Just like a CIO who fails to consider his users will struggle to achieve his digital transformation goals, leaders who neglect the individual needs of their teams will find it hard to meet their business objectives. There has never been a more important or legitimate time to ask, how are you? And to really mean it.


Further reading:

Information on how to create (the five pillars of) wellbeing in your business:

Toolkits for boosting mental health at work during lockdown: