As a leader, you can’t control the pandemic, but you can control many things within your (newly virtual) walls, and mental health cannot be left behind.
As the founder and CEO of a workplace mental health nonprofit and someone who manages generalized anxiety disorder, I’m already very attuned to the mental health of my team—but these are extraordinary times.
On Friday, March 13, when school closures had been announced where I live in San Francisco, I attempted to reassure my distributed team via email about the implications of the pandemic (screenshot below). I shared that I’d gone back and forth between moments of calm and crisis. I also noted that the responses within our organization are very much on a spectrum, as is all mental health. They can also go back and forth on that spectrum from day to day and even hour to hour.
All of your team members, regardless of preexisting mental health conditions, will face a certain amount of anxiety in this climate. It’s more important than ever to lead with mental health in mind as we face an unprecedented crisis with the novel coronavirus. Leaders are the culture setters within organizations—an even more critical role in our new virtual workforce. It’s on us to help pave the way for our teams. These are five ways to start (more resources to come here):
Be vulnerable about your own mental health
Coronavirus aside, 2020 has been tough. My mental health has been tenuous at best. I’ve intentionally made my team aware of this to be transparent and to normalize it. My dad passed away unexpectedly in January from heart-related issues and my mom has understandably been grieving deeply—across the country, no less. Managing both of these things, work, as well as the needs and feelings of my two small children has caused periodic anxiety spikes. Coming back from the verge of an anxiety spiral is a tribute to years of practicing hard-won cognitive behavioral skills, my psychologist, and my psychiatrist.
It’s important for leaders to show that they’re human. Being vulnerable doesn’t make you a weaker leader, but a much stronger, braver and authentic one. In this age of coronavirus, normalizing a universally felt anxiety is more important than ever. Take this even farther by sharing how you’re managing your own mental health and communicating your company’s mental health benefits and resources.
Be reassuring and values-based
As a leader, you can’t control the coronavirus, but you can control many things within your (newly virtual) walls. Uncertainty often results in anxiety, so reassure your employees where you can and lead with your values. In my email, I shared with my team members that I’m committed to their physical and mental health in these unbelievable times and will do whatever I can to help.
Communicating policies and ideally adjusting these as needed is critical right now. This includes conveying job security to the extent possible as well as explaining sick leave, leave for caregivers, PTO/other paid leave and more. I let our contractors know that we will continue to pay them normally, even if they are sick or unable to work their typical hours. Be generous as much as possible. Your team is relying on you and will remember your actions.
Remove some of your employees’ stressors and try to personalize the solutions, recognizing that everyone has different circumstances and needs. Your team members may not be comfortable sharing their respective challenges, but rest assured that they are all worried about something. Be proactive in providing a menu of options and express your willingness to co-create others. This could include working fewer or odd hours if childcare, caregiving or sickness is an issue, instituting boundaries for those tempted to work all the time at home, and suggesting ways to combat social isolation. Prioritize the work that has to happen versus what can slide during this time.
It is equally important to normalize this new flexibility. Be sure to give visibility into how you’ve adapted your own behavior. In my email, I wrote that “I fully expect that my kids will inevitably pop in and out of meetings as both of their schools have now closed—please know that it is completely OK for yours to do the same!” More recently, I shared that my husband and I are splitting childcare evenly, so we’re each working half-time during business hours and also working evenings as we “shelter-in-place.” Reiterate that these adjustments will take time for everyone as we navigate this new normal, so be patient and understanding.
Be available and compassionate
It’s imperative to make space for reflection as well as to listen and lead with empathy. I began our last all-hands meeting by asking how everyone was doing and feeling. I encouraged all questions, concerns and comments (there or privately), spelling out that no question is too big, small or embarrassing. As a distributed team, all our meetings have always been over video. It creates better rapport and connection than a conference call, which are critical to protect our mental health during this time of social distancing.
In encouraging these candid conversations in groups or individually, I’ve been able to better help my team members. One example is when one of my contractors called me upset, saying that she had a doctor’s referral to get tested for COVID-19 and had to miss our all-hands to do so. My immediate reaction was one of compassion, unequivocally communicating that her health came first. If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t provide solutions.
Be grateful and of service
While gratitude and a service-orientation may seem hard to manifest at the moment, they are both evidence-based approaches to bolstering mental health. Be grateful for what you have, including your team—particularly the resilience and close relationships that you’ll have on the other side of this pandemic. They will strengthen your organization for the long-term.
Be of service not only to your team members, but also to those in the community facing extra hardships, including low-income populations, undocumented workers, the elderly and sick, single parents, health care workers on the front lines and many others. Their mental health is even more at risk and they may face layoffs, evictions as well as lack of food, childcare and healthcare.
Now more than ever, mental health at work matters. Be well and take care of each other.