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 their employees who are struggling with mental health. 

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 is even more so as employees start returning back to the workplace.

At the heart of psychological safety is the feeling that we can share whatever we authentically think or feel without fear of negative consequence. One key aspect of psychological safety is the connection people feel with their co-workers. Helping foster strong social connection within a team helps build emotional safety. While virtual meetings can help people connect, it’s important to foster 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 his 25 years working in implementing strategic 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 left many people dealing with a swirl of intense emotions well beyond anything they’d usually be dealing with. While we’ve all been in the storm together, the truth is that we’ve all experienced it differently. This makes 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 make it a priority to connect with people through 1:1 meetings, always asking ‘How are you?’, genuinely, and always allowing the space for them 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. w

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 why it will be helpful to those in your charge. That said, if you’ve had a difficult day, or tough week, it’s okay to let others know you’re not covered in psychological teflon. This doesn’t mean you’re not capable of captaining your team forward. It just means that, like the former First Lady, you are human. People need to see that.

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.

Get up to speed on warning signs  

Mental illness is a silent epidemic. And 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. Common warning signs include:  

  1. Feeling sad/withdrawn for 2+ weeks
  2. Increased absenteeism or noticeable productivity losses
  3. Difficulty concentrating 
  4. Sudden or unpredictable shifts in attitude or mood
  5. 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 inviting them to engage in a conversation about the behavior you see, without suggesting causation or inferring fault, or share a personal experience as a way to show compassion and support.

Likewise, if you just have an intuitive sense that something is amiss, don’t ignore it. My own experience in leadership development 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.  Share your own regular activities and practices for taking care of your own wellbeing – mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.  

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.

In this midst of a time when so many people are wrestling with a broad spectrum of intense emotions – anxiety, grief, shame, depression, guilt, anger – leaders don’t just have the responsibility to lead in a more wholehearted way, prioritizing the whole wellbeing of those in their charge, they have an obligation. 

In my looking forward to looking back on this turbulent and testing time. For now, leaders need to step up to the leadership plate in whole new ways, putting the whole wellbeing of employees at the very heart of what we do.

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

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