Caring for employee mental health: a coronavirus guide

It has sent shockwaves through industry and economy alike, but its real impact has been on people. So how should business leaders be looking after employees during the coronavirus outbreak? And how can they prioritise their mental health and wellbeing?

As the working world adapts to a new normal, caring for employee mental health should be top of business leaders’ priorities. The coronavirus outbreak has shaken everyone, industries and individuals alike. A time of fear and uncertainty has been compounded by a totally new routine - one where everyone who can must work from home.

What should business leaders really be doing?

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? First of all, it is crucial to realise that this is an unprecedented situation - one for which not all employees will be well suited. “Some employees will originally have thrived working from home,” say organisational psychologists Karen Meager and John McLachlan. “But the key difference here is that it has now become ‘mandatory’, forcing people into ways of working that may not be natural for them. Leaders are key in making this adjustment as minimal as possible.”

Mental health campaigner Rob Stephenson agrees, but points out that 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?

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.’”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

3 ways managers can help employees during coronavirus outbreak

Although business leaders are best placed to provide direction and clarity, line managers and heads of department can offer more specific support for employees who are struggling.

Don’t stop the social

From virtual pub quizzes to conference call coffee breaks, the best way to combat loneliness during this time is to maintain connection with your colleagues. This could mean setting up one-on-ones, small team chats, or involving the whole organisation, just make sure it becomes part of the weekly routine.

Regular communication will also make space for people to be open when they are struggling. Armstrong suggests a quick way to establish who in your team needs to be prioritised in terms of their wellbeing. “A text-based ‘one word check-in’ via WhatsApp group allows managers to ask “how are you feeling?” each morning and get a quick update from everyone.” This can result in leaving those who feel ‘focused’ to get on with their day and following up privately with anyone who might be ‘overwhelmed’.

Another way to do this is to encourage colleagues all to share their daily “Form” score, a scheme devised by Stephenson where individuals rate their mental health out of ten. This should encourage members to think and talk about how they are really doing and open up a frank discussion within your team. Take this opportunity to build the mentally-healthy corporate culture the modern business needs.

Care over control

As a manager, you need to be firm and decisive when dealing with a team of people, but tone is everything, and when people are struggling, you must be able to adapt your behaviour to bring out the best in them. A ‘command and control’ approach may work for short bursts of fire-fighting, explains Armstrong, but day to day a more participative leadership style that “nurtures relationships and promotes initiative-taking” will bear more fruit.

Leave time for listening

When you are busy or worried, it can be difficult to prioritise time where all you do is sit and listen, but when it comes to employee mental health, this can be the most powerful and valuable thing you can do. Communication is key - but it is vital to create space where struggling individuals can talk to you, rather than with you, as a way to relieve tension or stress.

“We’re not all mental health experts,” says Chapman. “We’re not all able to diagnose and prescribe things, but we can listen. I think that’s the most important thing, the most powerful thing. It saves lives.” The value of creating channels or times where managers can simply listen to their employees, and allow them to offload cannot be overstated.

How to look after your own mental health working from home

Employee mental health is not only the responsibility of managers and leaders, each individual must take care of themselves too. The coronavirus has unsettled the whole business, from CEO to intern, so we must remember that there is a level playing field when it comes to sharing your struggles. Ask for help when you need it, and be open to helping your colleagues. Chapman shares his final pieces of advice for those working from home or quarantining.

  1. Keep to your original routine. Get up at the same time, get dressed, eat meals at the times you would and stop work properly at the end of the day.
  2. Try to exercise at least once a day.
  3. Do things for other people. Whether that is shopping for an elderly neighbour or calling an isolated family member, doing things which build up self-worth work wonders for your wellbeing.
  4. Limit your social media time, and only get your updates for reputable sources. Everyone will have an opinion, but don’t allow those to overwhelm you.

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