How Business Leaders Can Support Their Employees’ Mental Health During A Crisis

Prioritizing mental health is always important, in good times and in a crisis. Our level of contentment isn’t just a function of the events around us, but rather how we interpret and react to those events. As our lives continue to shift as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, here is what is really happening with your employees’ mental health and how you can help.

The Reality of Quarantine Stress

We are all under stress right now. Our routines have been upended, and the boundaries between work and home are severely blurred. We are working all hours and trying to be “on” whenever we are needed, no matter the time. In the past, we could primarily associate our work stress with our separate work space. But now that our work space is at home, we feel work stress in what used to be our safe space. This leads to heightened baseline anxiety and overwhelmed feelings around the clock. If you have kids, you are also parenting and homeschooling while you try to simultaneously manage work. You are in close quarters, but somehow feel isolated. Plus, you might have an extra layer of guilt for working while the kids are in the other room.

“We are experiencing waves of fight, flight, or freeze. The more we operate from this animalistic center of emotion, the less calm, logical and productive we are.” 

With these changes and the subsequent emotions, we are operating in survival mode. We are collectively in a time where the old lizard part of our brain, the amygdala, has taken over. We are experiencing waves of fight, flight, or freeze. The more we operate from this animalistic center of emotion, the less calm, logical and productive we are. We are anxious and we are feeding off the anxiety of others. Anxiety is a community condition. When you feel it from others—whether at the grocery or watching the news—it can raise your anxiety too. To cope, we are buying more alcohol and taking more anti-anxiety medications, but we are also going to therapy less and are unable to spend in-person time with our other social supports. People are getting further into isolation and they are not getting the help they need. Supporting employee mental health is as important as it’s ever been. The longer this quarantine continues, the more anxious and less motivated people become. After Hurricane Katrina, a study showed up to 50% of the people affected by the hurricane developed symptoms of PTSD afterward. People were similarly affected by the events of 9/11. These events were undeniably traumatic—but they also had a defined end. We are currently living in a crisis without a defined end, which only makes the trauma worse. This trauma can compromise our mental health, in the form of a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and anger, and lead to a deterioration of our physical health. From a business perspective, these conditions also lead to decreased productivity—first for the individual, then the team.

4 Ways to Support Employee Mental Health During COVID-19

The crisis we are in is serious, but it is not hopeless. There are ways to navigate this situation in a healthy way that will not only increase well-being but productivity. Rather than succumbing to or feeding the negativity, you can support your employees’ mental health with these four strategies.

1. Connect on a deeper level with employees.

Take time to connect with your employees on a more personal level than you typically would in the office. They are more isolated than ever before and need opportunities for connection. One way to do this is via regular video meetings with your team. Face-to-face check-ins to share professional content and get the job done provides some connection, but go the extra mile to also create an avenue for connecting on a more personal level. Maybe share what you’re each doing to stay in good shape from a physical and mental health perspective. Be curious and creative and look for ways to make it enjoyable. This type of sharing helps establish our common humanity, making people feel like they have shared struggles, shared wins, and they are not on their own.

2. Stay positive with your employees.

Keep a positive yet realistic attitude as you communicate. But don’t be blindly optimistic. If you are irrationally positive, you’ll work against yourself and appear insincere and hollow.  Leaders that are blindly optimistic are also prone to poor decision-making. On the other hand, if you are overly negative, you’ll potentially accelerate the depressive spiral—for yourself and your employees. Instead, strive for realistic optimism. Acknowledge the potentially grim reality of the situation, and then point out realistic opportunities that can lead to positive outcomes. This gives people a sense of hope and drives them towards lower anxiety levels, less depression, and improved decision-making.

3. Foster mindfulness and a sense of gratitude.

While “mindfulness” and “gratitude” practices may seem a little too intangible for some, they lead to undeniable research-backed improvements in mental health. Mindfulness can be defined as present-moment awareness without judgment. To be mindful, simply be aware of what is happening and take in the moment. Stop dwelling on what might happen in the future or regretting what you could have done differently in the past. Stay in the now. This present-moment awareness cultivates gratitude. If you are mindful of your day, you’ll find things to be grateful for. Mindfulness and gratitude work hand in hand.

“Strive for realistic optimism. Acknowledge the potentially grim reality of the situation, and then point out realistic opportunities that can lead to positive outcomes.” 

As you are working to improve employee mental health, look for ways to encourage mindfulness and gratitude as a daily habit for you and your team. Consider using apps like Grateful, Headspace, Mindfulness Daily, or Insight Timer to make these practices both easy and accessible. These practices not only make an immediate difference, but show lasting effects.

4. Take care of your own mental health.

Leaders, do not underestimate your need for support. The more you cultivate your own mental health, the better you’ll be able to walk alongside your employees on the same journey, and the better your decision making will be. It’s lonely at the top, make sure you have someone to talk to. The pressure can be overwhelming when you feel responsible for your well-being and the well-being of your team in the middle of a pandemic. Seek out a trusted friend, peer, or mentor to connect with during this time or elicit professional help as needed. Most mental health providers are providing video sessions for clients during this pandemic. Remember, you can’t care for your team if you are not taking care of yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask first! We are undeniably in a traumatic time. We have evolved over millions of years to be social animals, and yet that’s been stripped away from us overnight. Don’t underestimate the effect this crisis is having on you and your employees’ mental health. By supporting each other, we can—and will—make it to better days ahead.
Raj Patel is an Executive Recruiter at BVOH Search & Consulting, a boutique accounting & finance recruiting firm serving the Bay Area’s top companies. He is also a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, providing psychotherapy in the evening and weekends to adults, adolescents, and children on issues including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and trauma.  

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