The way we work has fundamentally changed, even in the past few months. From babies in the background of Zoom calls to mass layoffs, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the US economy and the mental health of its workers. Unemployment peaked at 15% in April and up to one-third of US jobs may be vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.
As companies begin to return to the office or decide to work remotely long-term, greater flexibility and strong and compassionate leadership are needed to make the transition work. The pressure can be greater for managers who have to balance their own work and wellbeing in addition to the impact of the crisis on their teams. The good news is, the same things that make you a good manager can help you support the mental health of your teams.
Any good manager knows effective communication is key for successful teams. But learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties is a common work-related factor that can add to stress, especially during a pandemic. The very first bullet point on the CDC’s list of tips to build resilience and manage job stress is to communicate with your coworkers, supervisors, and employees, including identifying things that cause stress; working together to identify solutions; and talking openly with employers, employees, and unions about how the pandemic is affecting work.
Letting your employees know exactly what you expect from them can relieve the burden of having to guess. Think about the last time you were uncertain about whether or not you were doing the right thing or doing a good job. The mental energy it takes to be uncertain about something detracts from other, more important things.
Not all effective feedback has to be positive, but it should be constructive. Providing effective feedback can give your teammates the energy and confidence to give great feedback to you in return. This can then be used to inform your own practice and boost your own confidence as a manager.
When it seems like the days are all running together and information is coming at us from all sides, it can be helpful to organize your thoughts and efforts to protect your own mental health.
You could send out a team update every Tuesday or hold virtual office hours on Friday mornings. Typically, there’s no such thing as too much (effective, engaging, and useful) communication.
You can also make sure that you’re checking in with team members about things other than work. Explicitly checking in on their mental health or the health of their families or asking how they’re planning to recharge at the weekend or take time for themselves can strengthen social ties and reduce feelings of isolation.
And you don’t have to create all of your communication from scratch. If your CEO sends out a company-wide update, reply just to your team with comments about how the news affects them and highlight how their roles fit in with what the company is doing.
Understand that everyone has their own unique experience and that you might not know the entire story, even if you ask. Stay curious and respectful and give people time to answer questions and provide explanations. Keeping the lines of communication open and engaging will allow you to help your team understand what is needed from them.
You might be thinking, it’s a lot of extra work for me to make sure everyone else is okay—what about my own mental health?
The good news is, it’s even more important that you take care of yourself first! You can’t pour from an empty cup. Tell your team that you won’t be checking email on the weekends or that you’re stepping away from your computer for lunch or you’re taking a staycation day. Work pauses into your day to check in with yourself and recharge and encourage your teams to do the same.
When your home and office are the same, it can be incredibly difficult to separate the two. Figure out your own self-care plan and how you’re going to create boundaries between work and homelife and share your plans with your team.
Yes, it is an additional burden to manage your own mental health along with the mental health of others, but the cost of doing nothing can be much greater. Young professionals are twice as likely to suffer from depression as the average employee and are more susceptible to leaveism—where they are unable to disconnect from work due to an increased use of technology—burnout, and financial worries.
Although you have one eye on the bottom line, remember that we’re still in the middle of a global health crisis. Trust your employees are doing the best work they can and encourage them to set and express their own boundaries.
In addition to setting boundaries and sharing self-care plans, one of the most impactful things you can do as a manager when it comes to supporting the mental health needs of your team is to normalize the conversation about mental health itself.
If you’re taking a mental health day, going to your own therapy appointment, or are just feeling off, sharing that with your team if you’re comfortable doing so can open the doors for others to do the same. Mental health stigma is still a very real problem and has a huge impact on how we discuss mental health as well as how we seek support. If you are able to normalize the conversation and lessen that stigma, that’s an important step toward providing mental health support for your teams.
Although mental health support is often the most frequently-requested resource in workplace surveys and studies, nearly half of all workers say their company has not proactively shared what mental health resources are available.
The quick pivot to physical distancing and remote work has increased feelings of isolation. Some companies are starting to return to the office, while others have announced long-term remote work plans. Still others have reopened with assurances that they’ll close in the event of an outbreak. The fear and uncertainty in both the world and the workplace might cause employees to hesitate to ask for help or support.
Don’t assume anyone remembers what was mentioned in onboarding, if it was mentioned at all! If you don’t know what resources are available, ask your human resources department, and you can be even more proactive and assume that if you don’t know, others don’t either. Suggest company-wide communication that explains what resources are available to all employees. This will serve a dual purpose of not only informing employees of the support available to them, but also indicating that utilizing the mental health resources is supported by the company.
As a leader, you can have a great impact on what mental health resources and services your company provides. From EAPs to meditation to group sessions with mental health professionals to therapy, the ways companies can support the mental health of their employees is vast and varied.
The most commonly desired workplace mental health resources are a more open and accepting culture, clearer information about where to go or whom to ask for support, and training.
Think about what services you would like to receive and poll your team. Ask people in your network what support their companies provide. Make the case to human resources or executive leadership for why additional support is needed and what types of resources teams are requesting. And if you’re in an executive role, you can make a huge impact on the mental health and wellbeing of your employees by prioritizing providing mental health support at your company.
Anyone can improve their communication, model boundary-setting and preventative self-care practices, normalize the conversation about mental health, and see what support their companies offer, but managers have a unique role in protecting the mental health of their teams and leading the charge to reduce mental health stigma in the workplace.
You already have the skills you need to make a difference when it comes to wellbeing at your organization. Be mindful of your own wellbeing and confident in the fact that you’re making work—and life—better for your team.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.