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Connection key to mental health in #WFH era

07:00am March 31 2020

Staying socially connected while remote is more critical than ever, says Westpac chief mental health officer David Burroughs. (Getty)

No one could have predicted how quickly and universally a distributed workforce revolution would occur.

While working remotely has been a thing for a while, in the past few week businesses big and small have had to not only, tragically, stand down and lay off staff as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but dramatically increase the number of employees working remotely, creating unexpected upheaval for millions.

Social media hasn’t wasted the opportunity with rivers of memes and anecdotes emerging making light of the trend.

But underneath the jokes, it’s clear the rate, extent and nature of the unexpected working shift has added another layer of stress to an increasingly frightening, frustrating and uncertain environment.

We are seeing this play out in society more broadly in panic-driven behaviour, where people’s primitive brains and survival instincts focus in on what is an often ill-defined perceived threat, as our capacity or willingness to engage in empathic reasoning is often lost.

Given all this, many organisations are now turning their attention to the psychological challenges facing their new remote workforces, which can be large given we know that stress is a major contributing factor in mental ill-health.


You’re not alone

Speaking with a number of organisations both in Australia and abroad, the rapid changes have definitely shown up some issues that many didn’t see coming. Indeed, the requirement to actually stay productive as an employee among all this shows just how remarkably resilient and adaptable most of us can be.

So, what can you do to minimise the toll?

First off, remember that working from home isn’t the same experience for everyone.

Some people thrive without structure, others crave it. Some love autonomy, others don’t cope as well. Some people have a strong locus of control over their world, others not so much.

For many, workplaces are typically areas where people feel a modicum of control. For some it’s even a sanctuary, a place where they get some respite from challenging family relationships and never-ending caring responsibilities.

But much of this has now been eroded.

A lot of people are now not just cohabiting but co-working with partners, adding relationship tensions to an already complex situation. A number of working parents, mothers in particular, have told me they are feeling extra overwhelmed as they shoulder the burden for not just work, but home schooling, sibling conflict resolution and child entertainment management.

With no respite in sight, the days are blending into each other, without definition between work and weekends.

As such, one thing becoming more apparent is that staying socially connected to others (while physically distanced) is now more critical than ever.

Tips for leaders

You need to first and foremost acknowledge the pressure your employees are under, understand what unique challenges each may be facing and ensure they feel genuinely supported.

Second, consider how you can virtually ‘walk the floor’ and find new ways of picking up on those subtle changes in behaviour that signal things might not be right, and avoid social silos forming between those on the front lines and those working remotely.

It might be hosting virtual team catch ups or coffees to talk about things other than COVID-19 or share lessons learned across the week – what went well and what were the major fails, and how is everyone managing more broadly. Or set up a WhatsApp-type group dedicated exclusively to friendly banter.

Third, work more closely with your people to enable a sense of autonomy and control over their work, including setting clear ways and routines for communication to reduce ambiguity. In addition, accept that under acute and prolonged stress, more mistakes might be made, and that’s okay.

Finally, and importantly, prioritise your own mental health and wellbeing. Positions of leadership don’t give you immunity from mental health-related concerns, so think about how you not only model your own behaviour but also fill up your psychological reservoirs.

While it’s hard to know how long this pandemic lasts, the more we can virtually wrap our arms around each other, particularly those who are the most vulnerable, the better. 


David Burroughs is Chief Mental Health Officer for Westpac Group and has a 20-year international career as a strategist, consultant and psychologist working across multiple industries. With career experience across clinical, military, organisational, and community psychology domains, David has a commitment to evidence-informed practices, and a reputation for tackling complex people matters. Specialising in workplace climate and behaviour, early intervention and prevention of workplace mental ill-health, and supporting vulnerable customers, David has a passion for innovation and challenging convention.

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