How to spot depression and anxiety in the remote workplace


According to new research by the Society for Human Resource Management, between 22% and 35% of U.S. employees are experiencing symptoms of depression as they live through the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a large percentage of the global workforce working from home remotely, and by some estimates as much as 42% of the entire US labor force, it’s imperative that employers be aware of the warning signs of mental health issues in their employees and respond proactively by promoting initiatives to prevent and respond to the emotional well-being of employees.

Yet, in virtual work environments, the challenge so many employers and managers are facing is how to identify and “spot” the warning signs of those employees in need.

Read more: 6 companies that launched innovative mental health benefits this year

Thanks to public health initiatives over the last decades which have raised awareness on mental health education, many in the general population are aware of tried and true warning signs of depression — like social withdrawal, changes in mood or increased irritability, absenteeism, decreased productivity, or even anxiety. Yet, these subtle cues are much harder to spot in employees working remotely, so here are some things employers and colleagues should be on the lookout for this coming year as employees continue to work from home.

Changes in communication patterns: Perhaps you notice inconsistencies in an employee’s communications. They are typically very active by email/slack or other communication channels in the mornings or mid-afternoons, but you begin to notice long lags, delays or inconsistency in their communication. Perhaps you haven’t heard from them in several days in a row with no advanced notice of their absence.

Changes in presentation: Pay attention to small cues about how your employees present in video meetings. Do they seem unkempt, tired, or even disheveled? This could be a warning sign that they are not doing well. If they begin appearing this way often, this could be a sign of depression. On the contrary, when they present to meetings, do they regularly seem distracted, on edge, or even irritable. If so, these subtle signs could signal anxiety.

Cancellations, tardiness, forgetfulness: Notice changes in performance or consistency. Depression can cause cognitive changes that have an impact on memory, time management and other executive functioning tasks. Do you notice your employees are showing up late to video meetings, or missing meetings in general which aren’t characteristic based on past performance? If so, this is something that managers should address from a compassionate perspective keeping mental health symptoms in mind.

Overproductivity, working long days or unusual hours: While it may seem paradoxical, being “over productive” may also be a warning sign of emotional or mental health issues especially if someone is coping with their anxiety, stress, or sadness by overworking to avoid their feelings. With the “blur” between home and work being so fuzzy during the pandemic, many people report having a harder time “turning off” their work and as a result this always “on” mentality and contribute to emotional and physical exhaustion and may even contribute to prolonged burnout.

Read more: WFH loneliness is the latest virtual challenge for employers

Here are our suggestions on how employers should respond to stay proactive and aware of their employees’ mental well being:

Don’t be afraid to ask: With so much stigma surrounding mental health issues in the workplace, managers and colleagues are often afraid of asking how someone is doing. Yet, noticing small warning signs and checking in with the employee shows caring and concern. It may open the door for the employee to share stressors they are experiencing at home or with transitioning to remote work during COVID.

Ask your employees what they need: Companies should acknowledge that their employees have unprecedented demands during this time. Not only are people struggling with anxiety or concern about the health and safety of themselves, family members, and loved ones, but they are juggling new roles, especially parents with school-aged children who are learning. Leadership and managers need to be compassionate and responsive. Bolster the offerings in your employee wellness program or EAP. Consider quarterly paid, mental health or wellness days, and offering virtual meditation or yoga classes or instituting a “meeting free” block each week. Initiatives like these mentioned paint a clear message to your employees that their health and wellness matters.

Consult with specialists to offer wellness webinars: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic spike in mental health problems with cases tripling with now one out of every four adults experiencing depression.

Yet with the added stress the pandemic is causing, many people may not recognize that what they are experiencing could be classified as an episode of major depressive disorder or anxiety. Companies and employers should consider offering webinars led by mental health specialists who provide education on what signs or symptoms employees should look for.

These same specialists can offer virtual workshops or classes to educate employees about proven research strategies that have been shown to boost resilience and combat symptoms of chronic stress, burnout or depression or anxiety.

Some of those strategies might include:

  • Creating an end of the work day daily rituals that allow employees to “turn off” work mode and reserve time for down time, being with family, or personal hobbies
  • Scheduling short breaks throughout the day to talk a brief, brisk walk, or stretch. Regular, aerobic activity has been shown to be as effective as medication and psychotherapy to alleviate symptoms of depression with some studies showing it can increase BDNF, a protein in the brain , while meditative movement like yoga and tai chi has been shown to also relieve symptoms of anxiety.
  • Reserving time every morning before starting the work day to write in a gratitude journal or focus on something or someone that gives a sense of joy. In stressful times, or when someone is experiencing depression, it’s natural for the brain’s negativity bias to go into overdrive, so it’s even more crucial to take opportunities to direct our attention to more positive events.
  • Promote healthy lifestyle habits like encouraging employees to carve out time during the workday to have a proper mid-day meal. Studies have found that diets high in fruit, vegetables, fish and health fats (olive oils) and low in animal products and processed food are associated with a lower risk of depression.

Finally, there are now a variety of digital or online treatments with content including video and audio lessons on research-proven techniques to improve mental health. There are many apps that offer guided meditations, breathing practices, and tips and tricks to help you modify your diet and lifestyle to enhance mental resilience and enhance mood. Some of these applications even include regulatory practices like biofeedback or 1:1 support from coaches or licensed mental health professionals.

Create opportunities for connection in the workplace: Humans are hardwired for social connection and belonging – meaning that with the pandemic limiting opportunities to connect and be in the physical proximity of friends, family, colleagues and peers, people are facing social isolation and feelings of disconnection. Research shows that having one person to connect with results in being ten times LESS likely to be depressed. Even more impressive, one study that tracked seven thousand Californians over nine years and showed that people who have social support, with any form of connection, lived longer than those who did not,. This means it’s imperative for employers to be investing in virtual events, online communities, or even support groups for employees who identify stress or other mental health issues.

While 2021 will still be a challenging year for many as the pandemic continues, and remote work will remain the norm, companies can and should take a proactive approach to spotting anxiety and depression among their employees and take measured steps to get them the help they need.





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