02 Sep How to spot someone is struggling when working from home
Most of our interactions are now happening online and although this mode of communication is adequate for normal business practice, it can prove tricky when trying to identify or support someone who might be struggling with poor mental health.
Now that many of us are working online from home, we are learning how diverse and complex some of our challenges are. While some are overwhelmed with demands on their attention, others feel disengaged and socially isolated. We might ‘all be in this together’ but our ability to adjust to our new circumstances often depends on factors outside of our control. If our usual networks and supports are difficult to access, then our sense of connection to one another might seem fragile.
The one place where we can and do connect is during online work meetings. It is here that our most positive interactions can take place, but conversely could cause the most distress. The hosts of our online work meetings need to be proficient with both the technology as well as managing this new, virtual human environment that we will be inhabiting for some time to come.
In this digital social space, we are all learning new protocols for communicating, sharing and getting work done. As our primary mode of communication, our online meetings should fulfil a social as well as practical role. We need to be able to transcend the technology and connect as emotionally intelligent and compassionate human beings. Without incorporating a social element into our daily interactions, we risk seeing our teams disintegrate and our colleagues becoming anxious or depressed. We are after all, emotional beings that need positive human interaction to thrive.
Too frequently we hear of online business meetings, where the host launches straight into the content of the meeting without considering the people in the virtual room or asking them how they are. This approach jolts people out of their own challenging environments straight into a hostile one and induces a stress reaction. It’s important not to strip meetings of the softer elements just because you are using an online platform. The principles of hospitality ought to apply equally to virtual or physical meetings and are of particular value now.
As hosts, we should remember our manners and brush up on our social skills if we are the primary chair at meetings. We are responsible for our guests/employees/colleagues comfort and wellbeing while they are in meetings as well as performing their tasks at home or in the office. Being a host requires a high degree of social skill and etiquette to put people at ease, make them feel relaxed and comfortable and build rapport. A sense of humour helps too. A host should be easy to talk to and be genuinely interested in people’s wellbeing and better still, have some training in mental health. A recent study suggests that only 13% of managers have had any training in this field yet 85% consider it to be a core skill.
If your primary host is technical or task orientated, a co-host could fill the social role. This will help to establish a two-way communication loop that leads to clearer understanding, better decision making and forms the basis of healthy collaboration and trust.
Many articles and guides are available to help hosts run productive and socially supportive meetings and help managers develop effective strategies for supporting remote teams. Here are a few to get you going:
- Tips for Managing the Wellbeing of Remote Workers (Unum.co.uk)
- Getting the most from remote worker (CIPD)
Even when we get these elements right, it can be difficult to tell whether someone might be struggling if they don’t tell us directly. All we can do is keep our communication channels open; trust our intuition and be brave enough to ask the right questions such as, ‘How are you doing?’; ‘How are you finding…?; ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ and to schedule regular, private, check-in meetings with everyone in the team
We know that human communication is made up of verbal and non-verbal cues. Body language, movement and facial expressions account for around 55% of the message; voice (tone, modulation and pauses) accounts for 33% and only 7% of meaning is relayed through the actual words people use. If we are losing a great deal of social information when communicating online, we need to be direct and proactive in asking people how they are, without prying or exerting undue pressure but through sensitive and respectful questioning while encouraging them to speak openly.
The limitations of the online medium also makes it more difficult to clarify what people are saying, as we are deprived of the subtle, non-verbal clues from facial expression, body language and tone of voice. Science tells us that these unconscious signals are the clearest expressions of our inner state but are particularly hard to decipher via small frames on a pixelised screen. While we may not be behavioural scientists or psychologists, we can try to be observant of people’s demeanour; their choice of words and how they present or interact.
If someone is looking particularly dishevelled (although we are all looking worse for wear during lockdown); if they seem distracted, hunched or aren’t engaging; or they are argumentative, agitated or angry; if they don’t volunteer information or are reluctant to speak; are frugal with language or their voice sounds flat; if they seem vague and struggle to focus; or if you pick up any marked change in their usual demeanour, then it’s time to initiate a private conversation. Active listening and clarifying will help you gain an accurate understanding of what is troubling them so that you are better able to help or signpost them to professional help if appropriate.
Current research on home-working estimates that up to a third of people are finding their workloads too high; that they lack clear guidance; don’t understand what is expected of them; have demands from too many sources or are subject to decisions made without consultation. If managers are to protect staff from overload, stress and burnout, they need to create robust two-way communication protocols that give people a high degree of autonomy and allow them to voice their concerns with confidence.
The way we work and live has changed, so we need to adapt our management styles accordingly by being flexible and person-centered with regard to productivity and staff wellbeing. Finding that sweet spot is the foundation of successful enterprise.
Written by MHScot Team Member, Sonia Last
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