Isolation Getting to Your Employees? 4 Ways to Help Them Stay Happy and Healthy

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Without a strong company culture in place, remote workers can easily feel isolated. Add in the pressures of COVID — the constant Zoom meetings, noisy households as kids go to virtual school, and the general stress of living through a global pandemic — and it’s not exactly an optimal environment for living your #BestLife.

Especially as colder weather, shorter days, and flu season approach, it’s more important than ever that employers take steps to help their newly remote workers stay in good mental health. Census Bureau data  from May showed the pandemic is also a mental health crisis. A third of Americans were suffering from severe anxiety just a few months into what is proving to be a long road back to normal, and nearly 25 percent were feeling symptoms of depression.

At Centric Consulting, we have been office-optional for two decades. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how to provide the right framework to help employees form thriving self-care routines when working from home. We’ve found the following to be vital in helping long-term remote employees remain happy, healthy, and therefore, productive :

1. Communicate Flexibility to Employees, Don’t Just Imply It

Remote work usually comes with more flexibility than working in the office all day. It’s essential to explicitly communicate to employees your expectations for how they work remotely. Let them know they aren’t expected to be chained to their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that they shouldn’t feel guilty for taking time out during traditional work hours to help a kid with virtual schoolwork, coach their child’s soccer team, take a walk around the block, or engage in any other activity that refreshes them.

When you empower employees to manage their own time (of course, they’ll still be expected to show up for meetings and get work done), they’ll feel more in control of their days. That, in turn, contributes to their mental well-being and makes them less susceptible to burnout and stress.

Plus, there are real benefits to be found in taking a breather or two throughout the day: Research  shows that workers who take breaks get a boost in creativity and productivity and maintain higher motivation.

2. Set a Good Example for Creating Work Boundaries

Staying connected 24/7 isn’t only unnecessary — it’s also bad for your mental health. Yet remote workers are at risk for burnout because they don’t have the traditional physical boundaries between the office and home.

Company leaders should encourage employees to create work/life balance by modeling it themselves. Smart disengaging tactics can include silencing chat apps after a certain hour and only responding to work emails and calls that come through on nights and weekends when they’re actual emergencies. When employees see company leaders disengage, they’ll feel more comfortable doing the same.

3. Make Meetings About More Than Work

To combat the isolation that can sneak up on remote workers, set aside a meaningful amount of time at the beginning of meetings to connect on a human level. Ask fun or non-intrusive personal questions (“If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”; “What have been the best and hardest parts of your week?”), designate Fridays for themed meeting, or turn that late afternoon meeting into a virtual happy hour.

At Centric, it’s part of our company protocol to kick off meetings with water-cooler talk before getting down to business. Sometimes this happens organically, and other times the meeting facilitator will include it on the agenda. By taking just a few minutes out of the day, we reinforce and build deeper relationships, which helps employees feel connected. That’s key to combating isolation.

4. Offer Employees Mental Health Resources

Let employees know you care about their mental health by actively providing resources to help. Here are a few ways to show employees you care and make it easy for them to get the support they need:

  1. Host regular guided meditation sessions over Zoom
  2. Institute a month-long step challenge
  3. Create a digital library of mental health tools and resources

Many companies are recognizing the need to provide such supports to their workforces. According to a spring 2020 survey by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, more than half of employers instituted emotional and mental health programs to support employees during the pandemic. Starbucks, for example, offered employees and their families free counseling sessions, while Target provided employees access to a variety of mental health and self-help apps.

There’s no question that we’re all facing uncertainty, anxiety, and stress as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While your teams may be adjusting to remote work for the first time, there’s no reason why it has to be an isolating experience or take a toll on their well-being. When companies provide adequate support to help remote employees take care of themselves, they maintain happier, healthier workforces while reaping the benefits of more productive and loyal employees.

Larry English, author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams , is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting.

By Larry English