Lost in translation? The role of communication in supporting emotional wellbeing while remote working

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health,considers the importance of communicating with employees working from home

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the world of work – seeing many businesses remote working – employers are learning more about the importance of effective communication.

Diminished in-person contact can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness among employees. And managers are also facing new challenges in providing the level of social interaction and support that is crucial in maintaining the mental health wellbeing of employees while away from the office.

Employers have a responsibility to equip staff with the right information to stay safe, remain engaged and protect their emotional wellbeing and that of their colleagues.

The problem with remote communication
A sudden shift to remote working has seen the workforce adapt to new ways of communicating. However, human interaction is about more than just words. Some of these extra cues, like tone and non-verbal communication, are lost when we cannot speak face-to-face.

For employees – especially new or junior team members – establishing meaning through in-person contact is crucial. When they rely on email alone, it can lead to crossed wires and confusion and, as a result, trigger stress and overworking.

Plus, face-to-face communication has additional benefits, like allowing responsive conversations. When we’re unable to respond in real-time or ask questions, we feel anxious. Employees may worry about annoying colleagues by double-emailing or worry over unanswered questions.

Employers should promote the use of tools which support a full range of communication, especially while remote working is most prevalent. Apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow employees to host video chats which encourage authentic conversation.

They also encourage a natural, less formal atmosphere, which helps build relationships as employees can catch-up with each other socially, around meetings. Social contact is shown to give us a dopamine spike, which helps us manage symptoms of like low mood, stress and fatigue, all of which, long-term, can exacerbate mental ill-health.

Training is key
It’s important employers and managers are equipped with the skills, not only to cope with the unique demands of remote working themselves but to support their staff.

This may require specialised training, so they feel confident in leading their teams both remotely and when back in an office environment. For example, online emotional wellbeing manager training teaches the skills needed to have difficult conversations with individuals who may be experiencing emotional distress.

Similarly, digital mental health support lets managers work through modules at their own pace and target topics relevant to them and their teams, helping them provide personalised support.

While employees are out of the office and communication is limited, managers must pay even closer attention to the behaviour of colleagues. A decline in work performance or changes to their language may be an indicator they are struggling.

It may be overt signals, like speaking less often or changes to their tone or speed during conversations. However, managers should also be aware of more subtle differences, like employees speaking negatively about themselves or using ‘absolutist’ words.

Research shows individuals struggling with depression are more likely to use terms like ‘always’ and ‘nothing’, which suggest a negative black-and-white world view.
Those confident in spotting signs of struggle in others will be able to provide interventions earlier. This may be as simple as beginning a conversation and asking, “are you okay?”, or signposting them towards available emotional wellbeing support in the workplace.

Providing tailored support
Before employers can offer effective support, they need to understand the challenges facing their employees. Many of those thrown into the world of remote working are not used to its unique challenges and demands.

Plus, as individuals get to grips with the unknown world of remote working, it can be difficult to separate work and home life. For those who previously left work at the office door, it can be difficult to ‘switch off’, when working from home.

Absence of routine and daily contact with colleagues may see remote workers struggle to understand their expectations, leading to overworking and ultimately burnout.

It is up to employers to establish these boundaries. Make sure employees’ expectations are clear. For example, reassuring them of their work schedule and letting them know they aren’t expected to work extra hours just because they don’t have a morning commute now.

Set contact hours, so all employees feel comfortable when they can speak to managers and senior team members. This can help with feelings of anxiety which result from employees feeling like they are facing responsibilities alone.

Remember, even if you take all the right steps in communicating and creating an open culture, there may be some individuals who still do not feel comfortable talking to managers or colleagues about their worries.

Providing access to employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or telephone/teleconference CBT will give them confidential access to speak with a specialist about specific concerns.
Psychotherapists are trained to nurture personal relationships and deliver the same level of support via telephone, making it suitable for those who are experiencing distress while remote working. They can teach a variety of effective coping mechanisms like noticing negative thinking patterns and unhelpful behaviours, which can help employees manage feelings of stress and anxiety during difficult times.

About the author

Brendan is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. He has over 25 years-experience of treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector.