The Tarnished Silver-Lining of Working from Home: Why Businesses Must Create Pro-Mental Health Cultures

By Nora Infante, PsyD. As the months of working from home continue to drag on, I hear more of my clients talk about the toll not just on their personal lives, but on their work productivity, as well. For many, the silver lining to working from home was an end to tiresome daily commutes and no longer being tied to an office environment. Clients with children may have found it challenging to figure out how to balance virtual schooling with their own virtual work demands, but they welcomed more quality family time. Those without children imagined making use of the extra time to learn a hobby or develop a new skill.   

However, after six months the silver lining is beginning to show some serious tarnish. Many families are feeling the strain of being under one roof day after day — often turning homes into multiple offices and classrooms where there is no real delineation between work and the rest of one’s life. It turns out that the commute may have actually served an important transitional function of allowing one to decompress and refocus. Clients report that they are actually working harder and putting in more hours at home than they did when being “forced to go” to the office.  

Early reports indicate that employees are beginning to show signs of burnout and behind the burnout there may be a mental health crisis looming. Senior leaders are under tremendous pressure to keep business afloat during complex and uncertain economic times. They feel a great responsibility to their employees and stakeholders, finding it hard to disengage from their concerns so that they may care for themselves. At home, things are not necessarily any easier. Many parents are finding their children’s behavior affected by lack of socialization and the stress of parenting under the circumstances is straining relationships. With no clear end in sight, it is easy to see how pressure is percolating and why we are seeing levels of anxiety and depression in the population at large not seen in quite some time. 

So, a conversation I have been having with business leaders: the critical importance of their workforce’s mental health. Leaders need to be proactive in addressing mental health issues within the organization and in creating a culture that does not stigmatize suffering and supports wellness.  

There are clear and important steps businesses can and should take to address the serious mental health issues facing us as a population, and them as an organization.  With this in mind, the National Network of Depression Centers and Project Healthy Minds have created an excellent outline of five ways businesses can create a pro-mental health and wellness culture. I have been actively sharing these with clients, as they increasingly express concern for their workforces, as well as their own personal situations.

1. Openly and consistently talk about mental health

One of the most corrosive elements of our mental health crisis is suffering in silence. Oftentimes, the stigma is more acute in the workplace than it is outside of it. A 2019 survey revealed that 81% of workers said the stigma associated with mental health prevents them from seeking treatment. That’s why leaders need to model the behavior by opening up in public settings — leveraging virtual company town halls, for instance — to create a structure that permits employees to open up about their own mental health struggles.

2. Train managers on mental health

Managers need to go through specialized training so they know when an employee is struggling with a mental health condition — especially while teams are working remotely and the signals may be less obvious. That means implementing mandatory, company-wide mental health first aid training for managers so that they are well-equipped to proactively identify issues before they get worse.

3. Ditch the “one-size-fits-all” approach

The mental health needs of employees are diverse. The needs of a young employee who has recently graduated and lives in a small, urban apartment can be very different than that of a female executive raising and educating children while running a large team.

For too long, companies have solely relied on employee assistance programs (EAPs) — essentially an outsourced hotline where employees can get help with legal problems, child care support, mental health services and more — to “check the box” when it comes to providing mental health services to employees. However, EAPs are rarely used — multiple studies have found that fewer than 10% of employees are taking advantage of them.

Once they’ve gone through formal training, managers should reach out to their team members individually to ask about their mental health and what they may need to establish new work-life boundaries during the pandemic, which will help them avoid burnout.

4. Redesign employee benefits to support mental health

Our Covid-related work and lifestyle changes aren’t going away in the near term. This is a marathon, compounded by uncertainty. Virtual programs can help employees handle stress and emotional symptoms more effectively by teaching mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and encouraging healthful behaviors, like getting adequate sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.

Wellness programs help keep people functioning at their best. Programs that support time off for treatment with a plan to return to work have proven benefits for avoiding “presenteeism” — when an employee is technically not absent from work, but is less productive. Flexibility to attend weekly therapy sessions or more intensive hospital treatment programs allows employees to focus on getting back to full function. Flexible leave also prevents employees from leaving the company to seek treatment, which can require expensive retraining for skilled roles.

5. Show that your commitment to mental health is authentic

World Mental Health Day is on October 10. One of the best ways employers can highlight mental health is by celebrating it. Companies should use their brand platform to publicly tell the employee base what it is going to do to aid in overcoming mental health challenges and detail how the company provides support. Employees and prospective talent look to the public positions that companies take on social issues and they make decisions based, at least in part, on that analysis.

Eventually we will have a way to prevent and treat Covid-19. But the collective emotional impact of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come. The more companies can get ahead of this looming mental health crisis, the better off they will be in the long run. Management needs to step-up and demonstrate a genuine and strategic commitment to wellness and mental health — for the sake of its employees and their business.

Here’s a recent Arden Coaching blog that includes five easy-to-do wellness tips that can help, “5 Wellness Hacks for Work From Home (WFH)”.

To learn more about mental health, emotional intelligence and leadership and organizational performance, schedule a consultation with Nora.

Thank you Nora! Mental health is a true “iceberg” issue — so much of the danger and impact goes unseen, lurking below the surface. The five steps are very helpful!