COVID-19 means radical uncertainty for businesses and their people. Workplace mental health experts say managers can boost their team’s resilience.
The world’s largest work from home experiment.
That’s how Time magazine describes working life in 2020, after measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. How will this unexpected shift from office life, and the pandemic’s upheaval and uncertainty, impact employees? I asked two world-leading experts in workplace mental health what managers can do now to build their team wellbeing.
Set the standard for mental health at work
The mental health of leaders and employees alike is a critical risk right now to business success. Every organization must give it their full attention.
Dr. Joti Samra
We know we need physical health and safety to protect everyone. The need to protect mental health at work is less well understood. Leading expert and media commentator, Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., wants to change that. She helped establish the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, a world-first of its kind. It’s now informing the development of an international ISO standard. She’s now founder and CEO of MyWorkplaceHealth, a consultancy helping businesses make their workplace more psychologically healthy.
The National Standard identifies 13 factors that contribute to a psychologically safe work environment, including civility, respect and clear leadership. Samra believes we now need to increase efforts to maintain these standards. She says, “Our research tells us when we enhance these, it’s win-win. Customer ratings, staff retention and the bottom line all improve.”
Dr. Joti Samra’s free webinar, Enhancing Psychological Health, Wellness and Resilience in the Era of COVID-19
“Every business in the world is changing because of COVID-19. We must evaluate what we’re doing now – what’s going well, and be honest about the pain points. We need to plan for resilience.”
Good mental health starts with good people management
People managers are the nexus of success, in Samra’s view. “Every business leader in the world is in a tricky position right now. We carry great weight because of our responsibility for others. Your direct manager is important in balancing your baseline stress. We must give leaders the skills to self-regulate, understand their stress triggers and stay calm.
“Unpredictable events and things out of our control distress many people. Coronavirus is ‘check’ on all counts. To manage anxiety, you need to build more certainty. I’m writing one, three, six, 12 and 18-month plans and financials to give more predictability. It’s keeping me sane as a CEO and it resonates with my corporate clients.
“I’ve run my start-up for a year. We were just getting into a flow. Now we’ve had to change for new priorities, plus business as usual. I’m re-thinking what’s critical and what can take a backseat. I break it into details week to week, or sometimes day to day. This means we can move quickly as things change.”
Value trust and openness
Trust is at the center of the shift to remote work. Kristina Barger is an expert in remote team management and psychological wellbeing. She’s worked with start-ups in London, New York and South Korea. She warns trust is fragile. It can easily break when teams are spread out and in times of crisis.
“If you disagree with a co-worker in your office, you can blow over a problem by taking coffee together. But when you don’t see people, it’s easier to misconstrue something. If problems aren’t addressed, they compound.”
Give more praise and rewards
“Uncertainty makes deadlines harder for people to hit,” says Barger. “Setting up routine and reward is important. People need a positive boost. Cut both your and your team’s tasks into smaller chunks, check it off and reward yourself. It could be just, saying thank you to a co-worker, or a break to call a friend.”
Samra believes changing times may mean managers need to be change tack. “Let’s be more forgiving. Acknowledge no one will be at their best right now and create a culture of trust. Let people work out their schedule around their new life. This helps build loyalty and work-life balance.”
Communicate more often and more deeply
Samra believes people managers need to know how to communicate effectively. “Have 1-2-1s with direct reports more often to understand their stress points. It may be money, children or caring for an elderly relative. Adapt expectations to each person’s needs. I’m asking my managers to have more contact to find out who’s OK and who’s struggling, so we can give them early support.”
Barger also recommends talking more. “We can’t separate what’s happening in the outside world with what’s going on in our teams. Replace the ‘water cooler’ moment by making time to connect. Start meetings with light chit-chat or a check-in.”
Ry Morgan, Founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind, likens mental health to dental hygiene. We should all do something about it each day. In the same way you brush your teeth regularly, check in with yourself and then your team – at work and home.
Have more virtual face time
Samra also recommends more virtual face time. “We’re having more video meetings. It takes more time than a call, but the human connection helps normalize this surreal time. Social connection helps us not only survive but thrive in the face of adversity.”
Barger says it’s good for leaders to show vulnerability. It should be OK to express emotion at work. “It’s more authentic if you open up, like saying, ‘It’s tough for me too. My kids are driving me crazy!'”
Share freely, and personalize it
Information overload is affecting everyone, particularly people managers. Samra asks us to personalize communication. “Connect individually and ask what they need. It shouldn’t be ‘one size fits all.'”
Digital sharing tools can help. Barger and her peers launched the Remote Leadership Support Group, a Slack community for managers to get credible advice and support from vetted experts.
Samra has also used Slack for her start-up’s internal comms. “It’s optional. People can use it if they need it.” She advises, “Share information proactively with your teams. If you offer employee benefits like counseling or health at work schemes, make sure everyone knows how to access them. There are also free resources that can help.”
The blog for MyWorkplaceHealth is an impressive trove of articles on meeting the challenges of the pandemic and mental health at work issues.
Tips on managing coronavirus anxiety at work, one of many free resources from MyWorkplaceHealth
Watch for the warning signs of deteriorating mental health
Mental health can decline slowly over time. “You don’t usually notice it’s happening to you until you’re far into it. We need to see subtle shifts –missed deadlines, late to calls, or rambling or confusing emails,” says Barger. According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety at work cost the global economy 1 trillion US dollars in lost productivity.
For working adults in the UK, about 15 percent have current mental health issues. During the pandemic, these numbers could grow. Barger explains, “Things that are good for us – like money, predictability and socializing – have been taken away or reduced.”
How to start that difficult conversation about mental health
Barger suggests a tiered approach. “Lay the groundwork by normalizing the change we’re all going through in group emails and calls. Explain the resources available and that you’re there for them. Next, is individual check-ins.
“Managers need to set the tone by being compassionate and non-judgmental. When you say ‘come to me with a problem,’ it might not happen straight away. This all takes work. There can be denial. Explain to the team that to connect, you’ll schedule a ‘virtual coffee,’ so people don’t feel singled out.”
She advises paying attention to cultural differences and personality preferences. “Reach out to those who are more emotionally reserved, but without pressure. You could ask peers to check in with each other if they have a good relationship.”
Reduce time-consuming negative news
While we adjust to new ways of working, there’s potential for burnout from long hours. With nothing to break up the day, things can become overwhelming, on top of the news.
Barger recommends, “If you notice the news getting you down, monitor your access. Research in Israel showed consuming news more than twice a day had negative mental health consequences.”
How to create structure in changing times
In the unexpected shift to the home office, many of us have new co-workers in partners, housemates, pets and children. Samra believes strengths and weaknesses in personal relationships will be exaggerated. “It’s a dangerous time for those in controlling or abusive relationships, but even a ‘so-so’ relationship can become strained. We can give our employees structure, so they have an escape from their personal lives. Let’s encourage people to get up, get showered, get dressed – video helps with this – then shut the door.”
If you have concerns about a colleague’s safety in a relationship, don’t ignore them. Find out what local violence-prevention agencies advise. The UK’s Department for Health has guidance for managers on recognizing the signs of domestic abuse, and what to do about it.
Barger says the route to productivity is different for each person. Regular, scheduled breaks are essential to decompress and refocus. “Someone in a crowded house-share could work for an hour then have something relaxing scheduled, like a call or coffee with a housemate. If it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen. Structure needs discipline. If you dive into a Netflix binge during a work day, it won’t feel rewarding later.”
She believes relaxation is also important to recharge. “Meditation is often ideal, but if you’re feeling extremely anxious, it may not be so effective. A few minutes of exercise can help. Try it every day for a week and see how it makes you feel.”
How can remote working make business better?
Despite the challenges today, Barger believes there are business wins. “People will need to improve their communication skills. It could help improve planning and structure. The commute and office environment had given us structure, but now we need to make it for ourselves.”
Samra notes that physical separation can also unite people on common ground. “As a planet, we’ve never had a more shared experience. It’s brought my team together by sharing more about our lives.”
“We live in unprecedented times” has become an overnight cliché in the pandemic world. But we need to adapt how we work to meet the challenges ahead. And that starts with looking after ourselves and our people.