5 ways leaders can help employees during COVID-19

As the working world adapts to a new normal, caring for employee mental health should be top of business leaders’ priorities

The ability of your organisation to weather the coronavirus outbreak lies in its adaptability, resilience and collaborative potential and you will need exactly these traits from your employees. What’s more, those employers who do not prioritise employee mental health and wellbeing are increasingly being called out on social media, potentially damaging their reputation. So what should business leaders really be doing?

Mental health campaigner Rob Stephenson believes the duty of care must start with yourself. As a leader, you too may be struggling, and it is imperative that you both look after yourself, and be open about the reality of the situation for you. “Role modelling healthy behaviours, having a positive outlook, and sharing how you are feeling can all help. Business leaders must be open to being vulnerable.”

Most importantly, business leaders must remember that caring for employee mental health is a shared responsibility - employers, managers, and employees themselves all play a part. Leaders must be careful not to try to do too much.

5 concrete ways business leaders can help

So, you have adjusted operations to the reality of the coronavirus outbreak, been open with your staff about your own struggles, and got the necessary support in place to help share the emotional burden, but what specific actions can you undertake to help employee mental health?

01 Communicate clearly with everyone

Regular, open communication is key. With so much uncertainty, it falls to leaders to be the calm voice of reason and reassure employees, remembering that how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. “Clear is kind,” says Angela Armstrong, resilience coach and founder of leadership development firm, Armstrong. “Leaders have an essential role in ensuring communications are concise, unambiguous and timely to answer these questions for different stakeholder groups: What’s changing? Why? What does it mean for me?” Communication must be calm and transparent about actions and realistic timelines.

And how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. “Create psychological safety by including both logical and empathetic statements in all communications and making space for conversations that explore people’s emotional response to all the changes - convey that ‘whatever happens we’ll do the best we can by you.’”

02 Shift your leadership style

If you are usually a decisive, authoritative leader, crises like the coronavirus outbreak will be where you come into your own, but it is not always the right approach when it comes to employee mental health. Good leaders must be able to judge what tone best suits each occasion. Armstrong explains; “as we’re preparing for the peak number of infections a participative leadership style that encourages collaboration and ownership will bring diverse specialisms together to solve complex solutions. When the peak arrives a more authoritative style might be more appropriate.”

Even though you may personally champion a more collaborative style of leadership, times like these demand you to be more open and adaptable, agree Meager and McLachlan. “This may feel unnatural for leaders who like to offer choice and empowerment, but at times of uncertainty, this level of ambiguity can be unsettling, confusing or even scary.”

03 Relax the rules

This is not a case of ‘business as usual’…but at home. Any leader who fails to acknowledge the psychological impact of being in lockdown or quarantined at home, will be letting their staff down. Workers’ needs, behaviours and attitudes to their work will change. Savvy leaders must be able to distinguish when behaviour is born out of uncertainty or fear and support rather than chastise employees. For the sake of employee mental health, Meager and McLachlan say, an “open door” policy has never made more sense. “Leaders need to ensure they are accessible - probably more so than usual. They are going to be in demand, especially in a crisis, but that’s why they are the leaders so they should aim to respond to people as quickly as possible.”

This is even more relevant when it comes to employees who are parents and are having to juggle their work with home-schooling or entertaining small children. Tom Chapman is the founder of the Lions Barber Collective, an initiative which trains barbers in how to spot symptoms of mental ill-health and encourages men to talk about their issues. A father himself, he explains why it behoves organisations to be particularly understanding when dealing with parents. “Before the coronavirus outbreak, we would spend all our time at home worrying about work, and all our time at work worrying about not spending enough time with our kids. Now we have a chance to find a balance. Employers need to be really understanding about parents doing different hours to fit in with their kids’ schedules. There’s so much guilt involved that can only be bad for your mental health.”

04 Locate the resources

When it comes to managing employee mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, there are limits to the support business leaders can offer themselves. Without face-to-face access to therapists, counsellors, in-house employee support groups or HR professionals, many workers may not know where to turn. As an employer, in this situation the best thing you can do is be acquainted with the resources available, and signpost them clearly for staff.

“There are lots of amazing resources out there,” says Chapman. “Hubofhope.co.uk is a fantastic resource that anyone can use. You type in your postcode and it lists all the resources available to you in geographic order. That’s a great one for employers to signpost, and it’s got everything from suicide prevention to gambling or marital problems.”

It also pays to take the time to educate yourself on what you can and cannot offer, and to learn from those who have prioritised worker wellbeing. Stephenson is organising the G24 summit where business leaders can come together via video conference to listen to talks by industry experts and discuss the challenges of looking after employee mental health at this difficult time. Collaborate and learn from others to look after workers as best you can.

05 Know when to step aside

And sometimes, the boldest step a leader can make, is knowing when they are not the best person for the job. “Unprecedented times demand that leaders take a bold step forward and engage wholeheartedly,” says Armstrong. “It is not for the faint-hearted and, if someone near you is equal to the task, and you are not, summon your courage and step aside to be their loyal number two, it could be the greatest act of servant leadership available to you.”