The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a public-health crisis. It’s also created an economic and mental health crisis. Studies have found that 53% of adults in the United States believe worry and stress related to COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health.
This presents significant challenge for leaders. Not only because one of the primary responsibility of leaders is to create the conditions for people to do their best work, but because failing to take care of employee mental health and wellbeing can have a ripple effect throughout their organization – undermining trust, engagement and psychological safety, the strongest attribute of high performing teams.
Given that in a regular year (which is about as far from 2020 as one could get) the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy one trillion dollars, there’s clearly a steep hidden cost on any organization that fails to support the whole wellbeing of their employees.
With October 10th marking World Mental Health Day, here are five ways that leaders can support those in their charge who are struggling with mental wellness.
Help people feel psychological safety
The COVID-19 virus has created many challenges around physical safety in the workplace. Yet given the stigma still associated with mental health, fostering an environment in which people feel emotionally safe and supported is simultaneously one of the most important and difficult challenges for leaders. This challenge is exacerbated further as employers reopening offices and encouraging employees to return to them.
At the heart of psychological safety is the feeling that we can openly and respectfully share what we think or feel without fear of negative consequence. One key aspect of psychological safety is the connection people have with their co-workers. Fostering strong social connection within a team helps build emotional safety. While virtual meetings can help people connect, it’s important to encourage conversations that are not work related. For instance, setting aside thirty minutes a day, or an hour a week, for a team check-in during which the only topic off the table is work.
Understand the resources your company offers
Drawing on 25 years working in organizational change, Peter Thies of The River Group says that “Understanding your organization’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) is not ‘an HR thing.’ It is very much a leadership concern.”
As a leader, it’s on you to understand the EAP and other resources available for those in your charge.
Connect with genuine empathy
This crisis has jolted millions outside their comfort zone, leaving many people wrangling with a swirl of intense emotions well beyond the norm. While we’ve all been riding this pandemic storm together, we’ve all weathered it differently. Some have thrived in the midst of crisis, with virtual working removing enormous pressure from their lives. Others… not so much.
It is why connecting from a place of genuine empathy and compassion more important than ever. As I shared in this previous column and video below, empathy is the singular most important skill for leadership, particularly in the midst of disruptive change and uncertainty.
So rather than rely on an email or IM, make it a priority to connect with people through 1:1 conversations. In fact given how disconnected people feel right now, this is one more reason to pick up the phone or, if you’re using Zoom, to turn on your camera. However you speak, always ask ‘How are you?’ and don’t fill awkward silences. Rather give them space to answer, honestly.
Humanize yourself by share your own struggles
When Michelle Obama shared in August that she felt she was suffering with a low-grade depression, social media streams flooded with an outpouring of support. Her courage to share her personal struggle so publicly was an act of public service by destigmatizing mental health. When someone with the fortitude of Michelle Obama confides they’re not invulnerable to depression, it ameliorates the shame associated with a mental health.
Of course this doesn’t imply anyone in a supervisory role should share everything they’re dealing with. You have to be clear about your intention for sharing and how it will be helpful to whoever you are speaking with. That said, if you’ve had a difficult day, or tough week, it’s okay to let others know you’re not made of psychological Teflon. This doesn’t mean you’re not fully capable of captaining your team forward. It just means that, like the former First Lady, you are human. People need to see that; to know that they are not alone.
We connect far more deeply through our vulnerability and struggles than our victories and success. As I’ve found from sharing the heartache caused by mental illness in my own family, when we share the unphotoshopped truth of our lives, it makes people more comfortable sharing the truth of their own.
Know the warning signs
Mental illness is a silent epidemic. Yet because we can’t see it, we can easily miss it. While only licensed professionals can accurately diagnose mental health risk, anyone can be on the lookout for indicators that the people they work and live with aren’t coping well. Early intervention can spare enormous suffering – not just to those who are unwell but for those around them. Common warning signs include:
- Feeling sad/withdrawn for extended periods (two plus weeks)
- Increased absenteeism or noticeable productivity losses
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sudden or unpredictable shifts in attitude or mood
- Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
If you observe these signs, don’t let your fear of an awkward conversation stop you from saying something. Peter Thies recommends engaging in a conversation about the behavior you see, without suggesting causation or inferring fault. You might also share a personal experience to support and help remove some of the social shame many people feel when they aren’t coping as well as they think they’re supposed to.
Likewise, if you just have an intuitive sense that something is amiss, don’t ignore it. My experience has taught me that if something doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t. A genuinely caring enquiry can open the door to connect with people on a very heartfelt level, enabling you to get them the help they may not even have known about, much less to have actively sought out on their own accord.
Role model radical self-care
Last but not least, lead by example by prioritizing your own mental wellbeing. There is no more powerful way to demonstrate the priority you put on mental health and wellbeing than on how you take care of yourself. And if you think you have far too much on your plate to take time to slow down, renew and reset, consider that you have far too much on your plate not to.
Our ability to lead others is always determined by our ability to lead ourselves. Be open about your regular ‘self-care rituals.’ Share your daily practices for taking care of your own wellbeing – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual – and how that supports your own mental health and emotional bandwidth under pressure.
Creating a “Zoom-free Friday”, scheduling a regular digital detox, or even taking your own “mental health day” sends a powerful message to your team and organization.
Maya Angelous once said that people wont always remember what you said or did, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.
The heart of this crisis is a human one. In this midst of a time when so many people are wrestling with confronting mix of intense emotions – anxiety, grief, shame, depression, guilt, anger, isolation, overwhelm – leaders don’t just have the responsibility to prioritize the whole wellbeing of those in their charge, they have an obligation.
If you are struggling right now, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the many other professional mental health care agencies.
Margie Warrell is leadership speaker and facilitator currently facilitating virtual programs to help leaders and teams navigate through this crisis better. She is also the author of You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself