May 4, 2020

Mental health in the virtual workspace

It’s often said that the most important communication is hearing what isn’t spoken. In business, with employees and clients alike, unspoken communication is what strengthens relationships. A nod of approval can offer assurance and a sympathetic ear can alleviate stress.

Right now, the availability of technology has allowed many businesses and employees around the globe to continue working from home, mostly unimpeded, despite the overwhelming presence of a global pandemic and for some, sharing an office with small children. Yet an important cost to our new way of working life is often overlooked - the loss of unspoken communication. So, what exactly has been lost and how are businesses plugging the gap to maintain relationships and promote mental health?

Most work environments usually offer some form of work place banter to ease the stress of the daily grind. With the introduction of the virtual office, simply popping by someone’s desk to unburden yourself of a particular issue no longer seems a viable option. Certainly, having to schedule a zoom call with a colleague for this reason doesn’t always feel appropriate. A lot of businesses have found a partial solution by using a team instant messaging app that attempts to mimic office communication, providing a sort of virtual simulacrum of the workspace. Easy to use and offering video capability, these apps aim to replace, among other things, the ability to pop by someone’s desk. You can even react to messages in a broader way than in real life, with the use of clever emojis.

That said, emojis don’t quite convey the same level of sentiment that face to face contact can. Nor can we ignore the fact that working remotely during a pandemic while under strict requirements to socially isolate, brings additional stress and anxiety to most. The fragility and heightened emotion that we’re all operating under can’t be overlooked.  In response to this issue, the Ministry of Health, Kiwibank and Westpac have teamed up to support free access for all New Zealanders to the mental health app Mentemia. Mentemia (meaning “my mind” in Italian) was co-founded by New Zealand’s very own former All Black, Sir John Kirwan, to provide its subscribers with the tools to help deal with modern day stressors. A sentiment that has only increased in significance over the past few months. The app behaves like a virtual counsellor, offering advice and training exercises to teach its users how to let go of stress and anxiety. More on the app, including how to download it, can be found on Mentemia’s website.

Acknowledging the dual crisis of both physical and mental health that we are in, businesses are having to be creative in maintaining team environments and keeping employees connected. Virtual quizzes (we’ve had our very own at HGM), coffee groups and weekly drinks all go towards minimizing the impact of social distancing and aim to keep the team together. Other businesses are also looking out for the mental wellbeing of employees, by encouraging physical activity. For the duration of lockdown, TVNZ and Les Mills have provided free online access to the popular Les Mills classes. These classes can be accessed here.

As we adapt to the new virtual working world, it’s encouraging to see this level of support on offer to New Zealanders to help us all get through.

Social media image credit: Ana Cruz

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