We have to change the rules to manage mental wellness in the virtual workplace 

By Bill Zolis

Let’s face it. We know that “mental health” comes up in first place in survey after survey of workplace issues that employees are dealing with, especially now that Covid and working-from-home have swept the rug out from under our feet 

This is not anything new – we’ve always dealt with issues of mental wellness at work, even if we didn’t call it that. We called it people management, or team building, or staying in touch, or even just caring about each other. And we did a lot of it by instinct and experience, without having to think about it. 

That may be a little harder when our contact with people is by phone and file sharing and video conference, but we can do it if we understand that all of the things we used to communicate face-to-face in the workplace still need to be communicated by whatever means we have available 

A teleconference, for example, used to be very focussed on a particular project and we tried to keep it on-topic, on time and strictly business. No time for chit-chat. But now that teleconference or virtual meeting is not just about the task, it’s about the whole job, and it’s about keeping everyone connected. 

How do you manage a virtual meeting with mental wellness in mind? I think the key is to keep each person connected, knowing that they are part of the group or team, and feeling that their feet are firmly planted on the ground. We’re not going to make most of the stresses go away, but we can put our people in a place where they feel that they’re not alone and that they can cope with whatever comes up. 

With that in mind, here are eight things to keep in mind, whether you’re coordinating a virtual meeting of your team, or reaching out one-on-one. 

Acknowledge:  At the start, acknowledge and greet each team member by name. It sounds trivial – sure, everyone can see who’s on the call – but it establishes a connection and it sends the message that each person has a role to play. It says, “We’re all here.” All of the “Go Team!” pep talks in the world don’t add up to the simple respect and recognition that routine acknowledgement of team status can achieve. 

Check off the successes: In terms of how happy and fulfilled we feel about our day-to-day work, there is a huge difference between “working on” something and “working toward” something. We like to feel that we are doing something useful, that we are making progress, and that our efforts are recognized. So, in the meeting, check off the successes: we’ve finished this, we’re moving forward on that, we’ve reached a milestone here, you did a good job there. If possible, single out and thank individuals for tasks or stages completed. 

Fill in the big picture: It’s important for everyone to have some idea of where their work, and the work of the team fit into the overall scheme of things. Remember, in the virtual space, there’s no buzz around the office, there are no casual conversations with people from other departments in the cafeteria, and the team can start to feel cut off from the organization. Your CEO and senior management are most likely reaching out, too, but it’s a good idea for you to provide updates and backgrounders to your team. 

Share news: Everyone wants to know what’s happening in the big picture. How is the organization doing overall? Are there changes coming? What are the plans for “after” the Covid emergency has run its course? Any news you can share – even if the news is that there is no news – will be welcome, and will help to build that “we’re all in this together” feeling. 

Reassure: The biggest issue that people are reporting, especially in light of the Covid upheaval we are all experiencing, is anxiety – worry and uncertainty about the future. That’s where even a little bit of positive reinforcement can go a long way. It can be a simple as a quick status report and a thank-you at the end of a meeting – something like, “Finally, I’d just like to say that we’re on track here, we’re meeting our targets and getting the job done. I’d like to thank all of you for making this work despite all of the challenges.” It’s a theme you really want to reinforce at every opportunity – it’s working, we’re doing well, you’re doing well, we’re all okay. 

Talk about the challenges: “I know that we all feel a little lost here sometimes, and I know we all face some challenges making this work,” is a good way to kick off a discussion. You can put a positive spin on things by going around the table – the virtual table, that is – and asking each person, “What’s one thing you’ve learned so far about making work-from-home work for you?” 

Reach out one-on-one: Don’t assume that everyone is doing well just because no one speaks up about issues in a meeting. Make the time to reach out to people one-on-one afterwards. Keep it low-key and informal. Ask, “How are you doing? Are you okay?” Yes, it’s a cliché, but just talking is half the battle. It sends a number of signals, such as a) it’s okay to talk, b) it’s normal to talk about the stresses and challenges we are facing, c) you’re not alone in this, d) I care about you. 

Be specific: When you’re talking one-on-one, by phone or chat or whatever, move on from the general “How are you doing?” and get specific with, “What’s the one thing that you’re really most concerned about right now?” And then, “Well, what can we do to make this work better for you?” 


Morneau Shepell has published its 2020 Mental Health Index ™ for Canada, and I thought some of the findings were particularly interesting. Risk measures, tracking what survey respondents reported as key issues, were up somewhat for anxiety, depression, optimism, isolation and concerns about work productivity. 

But what I found most interesting – in light of Covid – is that 70 percent feel they are adapting well to changes in their finances, 70 percent also feel that they are adapting well to changes in their work life or work routine, and that 65 percent feel the same about their personal life or personal routine. 

The complete report makes for some very interesting reading. 


I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at bill@penmore.com 

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