Gauging an Employee’s Emotional Well-Being in a Virtual World: Warning Signs and Ways to Help

Much has been written lately about how leaders can gauge productivity and performance in a virtual world. Beyond these two metrics, we have asked the question, “How can a leader tell when an employee is struggling emotionally in a virtual world?”

In a short span, a lot has changed in the world, and how we work, socialize, and lead. The impact of COVID-19 has altered the very nature of every human interaction. In the work environment, Zoom sessions have replaced conference room meetings, and email exchanges have replaced in-person interactions. In our personal lives, concerts have become podcasts, and even funerals are now webcast and have become virtual gatherings for the grieving. Replacing our familiar interpersonal experiences and sense of connection, all this virtual-based interaction has left us feeling detached, isolated, and despondent.

It can be challenging for a leader to keep contact levels high when all communication must happen via the web. It is even harder to interpret the reality of someone’s well-being when we only have an email or an image on a screen with which to interact. Body language is limited. Technology obscures the subtleties that we detect in a person.

So how do we know when an associate is struggling with grief in a virtual world? What is a compassionate and concerned leader to do?

Here are some warning signs that may help you recognize employees who are dealing with the effects of emotional trauma or grief in a virtual environment:

Tardiness: Emotionally traumatized people often fall into a state of distraction. They operate in a fog, unable to focus or concentrate. Deadlines come and go without them noticing. Procrastinating is common. A typically prompt person who begins to run late habitually could be an early warning sign of trouble.

Lack of Participation: It is hard to keep attendees of a virtual meeting interested. I know that when I am attending a virtual meeting, I make a deliberate effort to type a comment or response now and then, just so my boss knows I’m fully engaged. Even a mere on-camera “thumbs up” sends the signal that my attention is undivided. Lack of participation may indicate despondence more than disinterest, especially if the lack of involvement is unusual for this team member. An emotionally distracted or depressed person will find it difficult to concentrate and participate.

Fidgeting, Stepping Off Camera: Someone who is emotionally distracted, overwhelmed, grieving, or aggravated by having to be “seen right now” may exhibit signs of the “fight or flight response.” Squirming, constant movement, and stepping out of the shot may indicate someone’s patience is reaching a breaking point, and they just want to get away! Maybe they just need a bathroom break, but it may be a sign of something deeper going on in the person’s life. Be sensitive to the signs of those who obviously want the session to end.

Emotional Outbursts or Fits of Anger: Those struggling with emotional trauma or grief are subject to emotional outbursts. When the cause of their distress gets overwhelming, the person begins to question why things like work even matter. These feelings can lead to a lower than usual emotional boiling point.

Absenteeism: A person experiencing emotional trauma rarely wants to expose their psychological state to others. Even more so than in real life, “virtual absence” can be a red flag for emotional duress. Not wanting to go into work is one thing, but an inability to make the commute from the bed to the laptop in the living room is a whole new level of emotional incapacitation.

Now that we have an idea of what grief and emotional stress looks like virtually, how should leaders adapt? Here are three important action steps:

Be aware: This is harder than it sounds. The virtual world masks many of the queues a good leader will be sensitive to “in the room.” The virtual world requires even more focus on the part of the leader.

Engage and communicate: When a leader suspects there may be a deeper issue behind the behaviors they are witnessing, they should engage and communicate as early as possible. This engagement should take place privately and as in-person as possible. Never by email.

Be vulnerable and listen: That may sound counterintuitive, but if the leader does not acknowledge the struggles they are having, neither will their people. A person silently suffering through emotional trauma or grief needs a compassionate leader who is willing to listen and be supportive. The only way the person will respond is if the leader is vulnerable enough to demonstrate they genuinely care.

The office environment has changed. The subtle points of contact leaders usually have at their disposal have diminished. It takes a deliberate and concentrated effort to compensate for the lack of interpersonal opportunities to connect with your people. You won’t pass that grieving person in the hall to give them a pat on the back. You won’t see them sighing their way through their tasks. You won’t witness them skipping lunch to cry in their car. As their leader, you must be the consummate communicator, and in a virtual world, you must be constructive, creative, and consistent.



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