Anyone thinking remote working ways are a home run has got it wrong. Companies will need ways to help workforces cope with the need to switch. Image Credit: Ador T. Bustamante/Gulf News

Overnight, our homes became offices and classrooms. Every in-person interaction became a screen or a phone call. Travel for business or leisure was blocked.

A global lockdown was imposed affecting the economy and opportunities for growth. With so many disruptive changes, conversations on mental health and wellbeing surfaced. Mental health diseases represent an enormous global burden, in terms of human suffering and economic cost.

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And yet they are an often-ignored aspect of inclusivity. The workplace is one of the most significant factors that can affect an employee’s mental health. While many companies took bold steps to address and act on mental health challenges of its employees, the language of understanding and communicating mental well-being is still being developed.

A recent report from the IBM Institute for Business Value on ‘How Technology and Data Can Improve Access to Mental Health Resources’, shares that companies that set up programmes to address workforce well-being and mental health issues can help mitigate many of the negative psychosocial factors that adversely impact people and teams.

This is how we went about it, from a small team level to a global level:

Virtual 'corners' became a routine

We started a virtual practice of meeting every Sunday on a team call, recreating the vibe of a workplace. It was a simple, voluntary catch-up call over morning tea/coffee, with no work-related conversations. Most of us described it as a great way to start the week and bond as a team.

Closing a quarter from home

Sounds unthinkable right? We did it with collaborative tools and resilience. Tasks we spent midnights and beyond on at the workplace, seemed to be done in an effective way remotely.

We introduced courses on remote working tools and encouraged our teams to collaborate. This also helped reduce calls and email fatigue, as a simple message or a project status could be accessed any time using collaboration tools.

Mirrored in many ways

One of my mentors often said, “People will only learn when they see you doing it.” If you are a leader that’s not only an advantage you have, but also a responsibility.

If you take one hour off as a lunch break with your loved ones every day, your team will feel encouraged to take a break, too. While the concept of fixed working hours seems obsolete for now, imagine how productive and well-rested your team would feel if you encourage them to block some time into their schedule to exercise, spend time with their kids, spouses or pets or engage in some other activity that that will help boost their energy.

Fostering resiliency

The pandemic triggered additional stress where employees have had to deal with their jobs, families and mental health. In fact it became crucial for companies and individuals to strengthen their resiliency muscle.

Managers for example had to take into consideration if an employee has to home school their children for a few hours, or if the employee just needs to take a break and go for a walk or meditate.

At IBM for example, an employee-friendly pledge that supported work from home was launched. IBM prioritized a culture focused on flexibility, respect and empathy in a pledge created by listening to the voices of IBMers.

It was perfectly okay to put calls on hold to address household issues, to not be “camera ready” at all times, and to set boundaries on call times and duration.

Tech can help

IBM is working with its employees, clients and academic partners on increasingly sophisticated technology designed to strengthen communities and workforces. This includes helping people find and access mental health resources; enabling governments to collaborate across silos to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens and reducing the stress of people in transition by matching skills and capabilities with open positions in the labor market.

Crisis and pandemics can strike at any given point in life, and focusing on our families, communities and livelihoods remains the priority. In such a scenario, it is crucial for companies and businesses to acknowledge and act on mental distress and implement strategies to emerge stronger and better prepared to nurture the mental health of our workforce.

It is this commitment to understanding, listening, learning and evolving that will benefit organizations.

- Miguel Vega is Vice-President, IBM Systems, Middle East and Africa.