Mental Health Awareness Week: Conversations that support mental health and wellbeing in virtual workers

Catherine Pugh contributes our penultimate piece for Mental Health Awareness Week. 

Reading time: 3 minutes.

As humans and employees, we are more connected than ever before. Yet for many of us who work virtually, some, or all of the time, we have never felt more disconnected. 

Technology has dramatically changed the shape of our work and interactions; enhancing our sense of autonomy and breaking down geographical, hierarchical and cultural borders to allow us to rapidly build a web of new relationships. But how many of us are noticing unwanted side-effects on our mental health and wellbeing?  

Human beings instinctively crave connection. And when working face-to-face, we unconsciously tune in to a vast array of information telling us how the people around us are doing, whether they are getting on okay or whether they might need support. 

Face-to-face conversations are greatly reduced for virtual workers, or sometimes eliminated altogether. We can’t see body language or facial expressions that would otherwise give us clues to the emotional meaning behind the words of an email or instant message. And emojis only ever tell part of the story.

The very experience of working virtually – for all the benefits of flexibility that it brings – can be incredibly isolating

Even when speaking on the phone or by video, we can’t accurately gauge subtext or pick up on our colleague’s tiny gesture nuances – signalling that something might be up or that they need a different kind of conversation.

On top of this, the very experience of working virtually – for all the benefits of flexibility that it brings – can be incredibly isolating. Working remotely with an otherwise collocated team naturally creates an ‘us and them’ barrier. And as neuroscientific research shows us, the brain’s reaction to the social pain of exclusion is much the same as its reaction to physical pain.

So, with virtual working reaching epidemic proportions, how can leaders connect with virtual team members in ways that enhance, rather than damage their mental health and wellbeing?

Dial up the human touch

Find ways to inject high quality moments of human connection into virtual interactions. Be real. Be vulnerable. Emails can be edited and perfected, whilst video conferences can be rehearsed and often feel staged. 


Balance these by making it commonplace to use video for ‘normal’ conversation, making it safe for such conversations to include the virtual equivalent of all the imperfections and moments of humour that a spontaneous chat in the office would otherwise afford. 

Who cares if the image freezes on screen, the dog barks or the walls need re-papering in the background?! Such humble, human goings-on can actually be what breaks the ice and opens us up for a much more meaningful conversation.

Value kindness, compassion and interdependence

Small things can feel amplified in the virtual world, and simple acts of proactive kindness amongst virtual team members can work wonders for creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. Recognise that virtual workers might not have access to the same internal resources or network, so reach out to offer support, share knowledge and to help them make connections. 

Work hard to create a ‘one team’ sense of identity and belonging relevant to every team member, not just those who are office-based. These interconnected psychological ties will build trust and make the team individually and collectively more resilient, not to mention more productive.

Demonstrate trust

Efforts to create more connectivity with virtual workers, if done authentically, should have a positive effect on wellbeing. But there is a line beyond which regular connection can tip towards intrusion; undermining the sense of freedom and independence that is often the greatest joy of virtual work. 

Autonomy is regularly cited as one of our basic human needs; fulfilment of which is an essential ingredient for our wellbeing. 

Leader conversations that demonstrate genuine trust in the individual, that recognise the reality that their best work gets done flexibly rather than within the restricted confines of a conventional 9-to-5, will be much more likely to protect and nurture a key source of wellbeing for the evermore familiar virtual worker.


About the author

Catherine Pugh is a business psychologist for The Conversation Space.


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