This week, the UN warned about the heavy health toll of COVID-19, but the focus of this message wasn’t on the devastating physical effects of the virus. The focus was on the mental health toll that the pandemic is inflicting. “The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message. It’s fair to assume that not one of us is going untouched by the mental health effects of this crisis.
For a long time, mental health has been a topic not discussed very openly among friends, let alone at work. We all know someone who has been affected by depression, anxiety or addiction. Sadly, we all likely also know of someone who has committed suicide. But despite that, it still remained something largely hidden. However, over the last few years, due to great work from mental health advocates like Geoff McDonald in the UK and Patrick Kennedy and Arianna Huffington in the US, companies were beginning to open up the conversation and the resources.
Then COVID hit. Now every employer is facing not only an economic and health crisis, but also a growing mental health crisis among their employees. What’s compounding the challenge for leaders is that the ways that they might figure out someone was suffering, body language or tone, are much harder to discern over video conferencing software. The casual conversations that might open up insights are fewer when remote. Which means we need to be even more deliberate to determine how someone is actually doing. We may also just need to assume that for a significant portion of our workforce, the answer might be “not awesome” and act accordingly. So what can we do?
- Cultivate deliberate conversations about mental health and wellbeing with team members, and be honest about how you are doing
Leaders have a powerful role-modeling impact. If we put on our stiff upper lip all the time, then our team members will do the same. But if we are honest about something we are struggling with (and yes, we are all struggling with something), people may open up. The first step is just to check in personally and rethink the generic “how are you doing?” question. Consider asking a parent how they are balancing home school and work. Or ask someone who lives alone how they cope with the inevitable loneliness. Ask someone how they are sleeping. Then share something you are struggling with that week. These more focused and open conversations may uncover much deeper insights.
- Encourage habits that support mental health
I recently discovered the Army Physical Fitness test and suggested to our team that we should all try and pass it, since it’s doable without a gym. (Note: they all laughed out loud, but I am still attempting those hand release push ups). I have another team member who loves to garden and his updates about the tomatoes growing in his basement inspired me to get my containers fixed and give my generally mediocre garden another go. By exercising, sharing healthy eating tips, and spending time in nature, you boost your own mental health, but also role model healthy habits for your team. If you have a platform like WeSpire’s, these wellbeing activities not only can be shared, but people get recognition and positive feedback for doing them.
Sometimes these habits aren’t enough to combat the root cause of mental health issues. The other habit that leaders can support is encouraging professional help and making conversations about things like therapy appointments commonplace.
- Declare a “recharge” day
I recently heard that a customer is giving all 100,000 employees a “recharge” day to acknowledge the toll the pandemic has taken and encourage them to think about and support their own mental health. I thought it was a brilliant idea.
No one wanted a full on physical, economic and now mental health crisis in 2020. But whether we lead a family or a business, we have one on our hands. By confronting it openly and honestly and with compassion, creativity and professional support as needed, we will get our people through it.
Quote of the Week: What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.Glenn Close