If you’re in a leadership role, you’ve likely faced some brand new challenges during the pandemic between your team members being off work, working from home, working while adhering to new protocols related to physical distancing and the like, or whatever circumstances your organization is/has/will navigate. You’ve probably (hopefully!) put some thought into how your team members might be managing different stressors than you are, and acknowledging that we all manage anxieties differently. (Remember, empathy is a crucial component of strong leadership, as I detailed in a previous blog post.) To foster a psychologically safe and healthy workplace during these times of transition, leaders must do their best to accommodate the mental health needs of their people. The more deeply we’re able to understand what some of the issues are likely to be, the easier it’ll be to anticipate those needs and put relevant supports in place. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are four potential ways the mental health of your employees is being tested by their work situation:
1. Legitimate Fear
This sounds obvious, but as many focus on the gradual re-opening of businesses and the multi-layered logistics of that happening, recognition that many employees are apprehensive about their return to work is crucial. No matter your industry or the specifics of your workplace, an organization simply cannot function optimally when its people are fulfilling their duties (or attempting to) with a sense of fear… especially if that fear goes unvoiced. Many workers have conflicting thoughts about returning to work: on one hand a desire to restore normalcy to routines might be appealing, but fear about significant changes to workplace processes (e.g. physical distancing, personal protective equipment, changes to working hours/shifts, etc.), worries about contracting the virus and infecting others (including co-workers and one’s own family members) and a lack of decision-making power about their return may understandably be causing stress. Keep communication channels open and address concerns as they’re expressed.
2. Forced Change
As a society and as workers, we’re accustomed to certain rights and freedoms that were taken away very suddenly. Some adapt to change more readily than others and as a leader getting hung up on the way we feel someone should be responding, behaving or thinking isn’t productive. Instead, focus on supporting each individual by meeting them where they’re at, without judgment or assumptions. Leaders shouldn’t be surprised to see behaviors, attitudes and reactions from employees that are different from “the norm” as everyone copes and adapts to change in their own way. Many will need extra support in doing so. Check in with your team members regularly, validate their frustrations and be flexible when you’re able. At a time when it feels that much of what’s going on is beyond our control, the smallest gesture of an employer’s willingness to be flexible can help someone to feel like they’re back in the driver’s seat.
3. Challenged Identities
The way we see our contributions to the world and our role in society may have transformed over the past couple of months. Identity is a subjective experience of every person. Think of the things that make you you. Has the pandemic changed the way you express that identity? Have you been required to replace elements of your previously defined identity with a new role in the wake of those forced changes and imposed restrictions mentioned in the previous point? Do you feel you’ve had to take on a role you never signed up for? For many of us, our work is more than just a way we pass 40 hours out of our weeks; our job role is part of our identity and the way we define ourselves. For example: a competent mechanic is now a homeschooling teacher; a breadwinner is now unemployed; a high-powered executive is now a stay-at-home parent; a social butterfly is now living in isolation. Losing parts of our identity and having new ones thrust upon us undoubtedly takes a toll on our mental wellbeing.
4. The Great Unknown
Wouldn’t the stress of the pandemic be a thousand times easier to manage if we had a solid “end date” to look forward to? The truth is, there are countless questions floating around most of our minds that no one has the answers to. Leaders may also experience feelings of inadequacy in their roles; if you’re accustomed to being able to provide your team with answers and reassure them during past challenges, it’s tough to now be in a position where the only answer you can offer, over and over again, is “I don’t know”. The best things you can offer your team is honesty and reassurance that, as we’ve all heard many times from our government and in our communities, we’re all in this together.
I hope this week’s post has given you some ideas to chew on, but I also encourage you to consider additions to this list. How has your own mental health been challenged of late? Knowing your team members, what issues might they be experiencing? Give it some thought and drop them in the Comments section below.
Thanks for reading, my friends. Stay well and see you next week!
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.