The mental health challenge

Business psychologist Julie Brophy explains how leaders can manage workplace wellbeing and spot the signs when an employee is struggling

If your employees have been working at home for months the isolation and new ways of working could be taking a toll on their mental health, which may lead to personal difficulties for them and to a fall in performance at work. As a remote leader it can be more difficult to spot the signs that someone is struggling when they are working from home but there are signals to look out for.

Julie Brophy, a business psychologist and Principal Consultant at Cambridge-based business management consultancy OE Cam says that at some businesses the structures that were put in place at the start of lockdown to support social cohesion and enable regular informal contact with employees have fallen away over time. Owners need to reassert these and put in place reminders for individuals to be contacted to see how they are. There are red flags that can alert you of a remote employee who is struggling mentally, if you take the time to look.

  • One indicator is a decline in the quality or speed of their work. That’s got to be balanced, however, with whether they are busy because there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are going from video conference to video conference and so their days are absolutely packed, says Julie. It could be that an employee who isn’t working as well as they were before lockdown is just very busy and this may be compounded if they are taking on extra work because you have fewer people in the business.
  • When your people are on calls you should look out for a change in the use of language, tone of voice and manner. Do they seem quieter and more subdued and are they using fewer positive adjectives than you would expect? Again, this has to be balanced against other factors. They may not be responding in the same way in a video conference just because that’s not the way they are used to holding meetings.
  • Is an employee making less of a contribution in discussions than you would expect? One of the more difficult things about being on a video conference rather than being in a room is that it’s harder to read body language. The non-verbal cues are harder to pick up but you need to look out for things like whether they are sitting back more or coming forward into conversations. How are they compared to how they would normally be? Once more the employee could just be responding differently to a different medium, sitting back to reflect before getting involved.

So, it’s up to business owners and line mangers to look out for these warning signs and decide, on balance, whether someone is struggling in the ‘new norm’. Julie explains: “If you are seeing that someone isn’t contributing as much in a meeting, that’s the kind of discussion to take offline. Reach out to them one-to-one and just ask how they are doing. It shouldn’t be a performance-related conversation, just ask them how they are doing and how things are at home.”

Not everything has changed

Part of the leadership role is to reassure the team. Point out that not everything has changed, highlight what they are good at and give them anchors by explaining what in their life is the same. Leaders should be role models when it comes to behaviours in a remote environment. “Perhaps at the end of a call you should say, yourself, ‘I’m just going to take half an hour and go out for a walk because I’ve been on calls all day and I just need to clear my head’,” says Julie. “You should model that kind of behaviour.

“We’re working with one company that has actually started to have meetings that you attend while you are out for a walk. It’s nothing confidential but it’s that kind of checking-in conversation that they have while they are walking so they can make sure that everyone is getting away from their desks and taking time to relax a bit and get outside.” This idea was echoed in a previous Entrepreneur Club article in which Kristen McNamara, Senior Director of Staff Development and Talent Acquisition at recruitment agency Robert Half, explained that she took the time to speak to some of her remote staff while walking as part of an informal dog walking group.

Video conference overload

OE Cam has also been talking to companies about how they use video conferencing, which many assume is the way forwards. The challenge with such technology, however, is that it’s much more intense than a simple telephone call because you’re forced to keep eye contact all the time. Taking turns in the conversation also becomes more difficult, it’s easy to end up talking over each other and you often end up with gaps in the conversation. So, considering more carefully how often you use different kinds of technologies, including the telephone, could help employees cope more easily with new ways of working.

OE Cam is currently carrying out pan-European research into agile organisations, looking at dimensions such as leadership, innovation, and the mobility mindset needed by people so they can thrive in an agile environment. Among the insights to emerge that are particularly important while people are working remotely is the authenticity of communication; don’t pretend to know something that you don’t. Focus, perspective and autonomy are also key. “Your people will cope better if they can say: ‘I feel part of something, I know where I’m going and I have control over how I achieve it’,” says Julie.

As an entrepreneur it is important to continually reach out to your people not just to see how work is progressing but also to see how they feeling and coping with the situation.


This article is written for the St James’ Place Entrepreneurs Club newsletter. The opinions expressed by third parties are their own are not necessarily shared by St. James’s Place Wealth Management.