Although many businesses are busy planning their returns to the office, for some, working from has provided a safer, more comfortable alternative that their employees are reaping the benefits of. Working from home offers a number of benefits, from easy childcare to lack of commute to a less distracted workforce, and more and more businesses are opting in, in the post-pandemic era.
But for many employees, working from home provides more than just a comfortable working environment and easy access to their families. For those struggling with mental or physical health conditions, be able to work remotely offers a huge range of support, accessibility and personal comfort without the constraints of an office. With their healthcare essentials within reaching distance, their medications and treatment plans in the next room and the private space to carry out the necessary meditative or physical exercises required, working at home allows them to focus on their own needs alongside their work.
However, this path to inclusivity isn’t quite as smooth and clear as we might expect. The introduction of Zoom calls, Teams meetings and Google Hangouts has created a useful virtual workspace that can allow teams to truly feel connected despite being in entirely separate homes. They’re all incredibly beneficial platforms and many of us would be professionally lost without them, but there are those who can take the boundaries of Zoom just a step too far.
What does ‘mental health inclusive’ mean?
To be ‘mental health inclusive’ means to be aware, educated and supportive of the mental health problems your employees may be facing, without being intrusive or judgemental. 1 in 4 of us suffer from a mental health condition, and even in the smallest of teams, it’s more likely than not that one of your employees and colleagues may be experiencing a mental health problem – particularly after the difficulties of the pandemic.
From depression and anxiety to OCD and bipolar disorder, mental health problems can affect us all in different ways and it’s so important to stay open and aware of how your employees are feeling throughout their time working from home.
By utilising the resources available to you online, from sites such as Mind, the NHS and Mental Health at Work, you can begin to teach yourself, as a manager and colleague, how mental health problems can affect the professional working lives of your team and the right way to create an inclusive space through Zoom.
What defines a ‘non-inclusive’ space?
A lot of the time, a non-inclusive space can only be determined by those being excluded from it i.e. those who don’t feel welcome, accepted and supported in your virtual environment. This could mean that they feel wary of mentioning any emotional or mental health problems, it could mean that they’ve been asked to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing or it could mean that their mental health hasn’t been taken into account when planning the meeting.
Many mental health sufferers, for example, struggle to stay in meetings for exceedingly long periods of time without a break. Being on camera for well over an hour or so can be a challenge and can make them feel drained, overwhelmed and ‘on show’. Setting up lengthy meetings with a ‘camera on’ rule is a surefire way to make your employees feel stressed or anxious – whether they feel they have to monitor their facial expressions a lot, always have a clear and tidy background, remove any pets or children from the room or pretend to remain focused for the entire meeting out of fear. Throughout the pandemic, many people also found that they were becoming more self-conscious and body-aware due to the increased amount of time spent looking at their own face in virtual meetings. This can lead to issues of self-confidence, low self-esteem and even disordered eating.
Certain comments and jokes can also make a mentally ill worker feel excluded and uncomfortable. Whilst it’s nice to have the opportunity to virtually socialise with your teammates and colleagues online, some topics and phrases can feel derogatory to those struggling with their mental health. Using phrases such as ‘I’m so OCD’, ‘I nearly had a panic attack’ and ‘it’s like they’re bipolar!’ can all feel offensive to colleagues struggling with those issues, and can make them feel reluctant to openly discuss their own personal problems. Without being able to see everyone’s reactions face to face, online video meetings can often lead to more inappropriate behaviour and comments as people can feel protected by the screen in front of them. They don’t have to deal with the impact of their jokes in real life and they can only see a select few people rather than everyone around them, giving them a restricted view of the reaction they’ve created.
In addition, workplaces that adopt a ‘leave your sh*t at the door’ mentality can also be responsible for creating a non-inclusive working environment, even when working online. By refusing to acknowledge the personal struggles of your employees, whether they’re in the office or at home, you’re building a space in which your teammates aren’t humans, just workers. They’re expected to bottle up emotions, work through crippling bouts of anxiety and depression, push themselves further than they’re capable of and put the job before their own personal safety. Mental health problems aren’t the odd low day or the feeling of nerves before a big presentation – they’re real, difficult problems that can have physical symptoms as well as mental ones and this needs to be respected.
How can we work to make online meetings more inclusive?
Much of the work to make your online spaces more inclusive needs to be carried out throughout your entire business – not just in Zoom calls. Your virtual meetings should reflect the efforts you put in place in your physical office to create an open, honest and welcoming environment where people can share their struggles and still get work done.
Here are some of my tips for making a more mental health inclusive workspace – both on and offline:
- Create company wide processes for handling mental health diagnoses and struggles. Offer a one-on-one chat with you and the employee, or recommend they talk to HR. Ask them how best to manage their workload, if they need any time off, if there’s anything the team can do to help or if they need some further support. These can be carried over into your Zoom meetings too.
- Educate your entire team on managing stress, self-care and mental health. Have inclusive meetings where your team can share their tips on self-care, offer company-sponsored exercise classes, recommend stress relieving activites and set up presentations on how to manage stress at work.
- Avoid spontaneous or last-minute meetings. A sudden invite to a meeting can be a big source of anxiety for many people working from home, especially if they’re not given any context for the meeting. Make sure you plan your schedule well and if you need to change any times, give your employees the reason for doing so.
- Avoid ‘forced fun’ Zoom calls after working hours. Many employees like to finish their work day at the same time every evening and have other commitments to attend to after they finish. Mandatory events like Zoom quizzes, late night meetings, and drinking sessions can make employees feel pressured and anxious to leave without upsetting the host. Give people the option to end their work day at a time they feel comfortable doing so, and understand that after a certain time, their priority is no longer work.
- Educate those who make innappropriate jokes about mental health and avoid doing so yourself. Lead by example when it comes to calling out insensitive comments and outdated stereotypes and let all of your employees know that your company values mental health, rather than makes fun of it.
- Create safe spaces to talk about stress and mental health, such as company-wide Slack channels and groups. It’s important that your team members know they’re not alone and that they do have support from empathetic people.
- Provide everyone with an option regarding their cameras – and let them know that whether they choose to have them on or off, they’ll still be welcome in the meeting.
- Try to avoid crossing any boundaries when speaking to large groups. Never share any confidential information a colleague may have discussed with you, avoid gossiping about employees on mental health leave and be as respectful as possible to everyone’s needs.
- Don’t judge one mental health condition over another. Anxiety and depression are generally considered the most common mental illnesses, however that doesn’t mean that you won’t end up working with a team of people with conditions such as bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD and other, less-discussed issues. Being inclusive means being accepting of all of these conditions and helping your team to achieve their best in spite of their mental health problems, in a space that feels safe to them.
If you’ve never struggled with mental health problems, or known someone who has, it can be hard to know the right things to say and do to help your team feel included. Often, however, the best way to create an inclusive virtual workspace is simply by asking your employees what they need and want to work at their best. Honesty is the best policy and educating yourself is vital to running a happy, productive team.
Thanks for reading