The abrupt shift towards remote working brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has been welcomed by many for its positive impact on work/life balance. However, as brick-and-mortar offices emptied out and were swapped for Zoom calls, some employees have reported a sense of loneliness and disconnection, exacerbated by the world of work moving online.
This impact was felt particularly by the disabled community, a cross-section of society that already all too often finds itself marginalised due to lack of supports, accessibility and opportunities for social inclusion. Indeed,almost two thirdsof disabled people in the UK reported a decline their mental health since the start of the pandemic, as inequalities which already existed beforehand were deepened.The Irish Timesnotes that prolonged periods without face-to-face interaction with their support system and the closure of day services which provide vital opportunities to socialise outside the home contributed to heightened levels of anxiety and isolation within the Irish disabled community.
A recent study estimates that82% of employeeswith mental health conditions choose not to disclose this to their employer. The reasons behind this are multi-faceted, from fear of stigma or discrimination to anxiety that colleagues simply won’t understand. This means that for every colleague who openly shares their experiences with their mental health at work, there are several others who are going through the same thing in silence. The good news, however, is there are simple things we can do this Mental Health Awareness Month and beyond to make the virtual workplace a less lonely place and ensure all our colleagues feel a sense of belonging. Here are some top tips:
As trivial as it may sound, something as simple as switching on your camera during virtual meetings can make a difference, especially if your company doesn’t have a culture where this is done by default. Some colleagues may go the entire workday without having seen any of their colleagues’ faces, so getting to see as well as hear their teammates can help foster a greater sense of connection – something which not only helps combat loneliness in the workplace, but also helps improve your team’s synergy. If nobody else has turned their camera on, you doing can often motivate others to follow suit and creating this positive habit could even affect a cultural change that brings everyone closer together, so why not try it out!
Try ‘coffee roulette’.
Set up an initiative where colleagues who work in different departments and don’t usually get to interact with each other are paired up, setting aside 30 minutes during the week to have a “virtual coffee” and get to know each other. No shop talk, just authentic connection. You can rotate these pairings so each employee gets to know a different colleague each week. This is a great way of creating a sense of belonging beyond your immediate team and who knows, you may even make some lifelong friends along the way!
Bring everyone into the conversation
If you notice someone in your team has been quiet, find subtle ways to bring them into the discussion without putting them on the spot. Ask for their input, tell them you value their opinion. Schedule some one-to-one time, either to talk shop or just to have a chat. Check in with them offline and ask if they’re doing okay. While some people may not feel comfortable discussing their mental health with a colleague, noticing that they haven’t been themselves and offering them the option to open up if they wish can be a very meaningful gesture and helps normalise the dialogue around mental health and loneliness in the workplace – a goal we should all strive towards this Mental Health Awareness Month.