Our mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, demanding the attention of leaders and businesses.
Under normal circumstances, one in ten adults in the U.S. have symptoms of depression or anxiety. That number has jumped to four in ten during the pandemic—and that might be conservative. Our data show much higher numbers. In our research surveying over 1,900 people across the globe, more than 60% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety during the pandemic.
The trouble is, emotions can be contagious. If someone is sad or anxious, we’re likely to catch the feeling and pass it on to others. That’s because our autonomic nervous system—which controls whether we are alert, anxious, or calm—interacts with the same systems in others around us. If you’re close with someone, you may experience a sort of empathic matching, where you automatically pick up on and mimic their emotional state. How sensitive you are to this is often determined by your childhood experiences and the mother-child bond. Consider the above statistics in the context of emotional contagion, and it is easy to conclude that we all have experienced a traumatic event and are experiencing collective grief.
Considering what is happening in the world right now, there’s a good chance that someone on your team is struggling. Here’s how you can help them.
Spot the Warning Signs
If you’ve ever had a mental health challenge or experienced burnout, you’re likely more attuned to the warning signs. People seem more anxious, frustrated, and angry. They may look sad. Or be quiet at work. Or be unable to focus. Or send emails far outside normal business hours.
I remember when one of my managers, someone I cared for very much, sent me an email at 2:00 a.m. I reached out to him to find out if everything was okay. I’ll stop my story here, but the point is that a caring relationship between leaders and their people is mutual. No one wants to feel isolated, regardless of their seniority or place in the food chain. And it can be very isolating to be a leader with a lot of responsibility during a difficult time.
According to Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic, warning signs that someone is experiencing chronic stress and mental illness typically fall into four categories:
- Changes in work habits such as lack of motivation, errors, difficulty concentrating, or lower productivity
- Behavior changes including mood volatility, worry, irritability, or restlessness
- Increased absences from work from someone who is normally punctual
- Recurring complaints of physical symptoms such as fatigue, headache, abdominal distress, or weight change
Look for the Root Cause
If your employees are experiencing burnout, chances are it’s not their fault. In fact, it may be time to take a hard look at your organization’s culture, practices, and expectations to see if they unintentionally might be adding fuel the fire. The results of this inquiry may humble you.
According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), there are six primary causes of burnout:
- Perceived lack of control
- Lack of reward or recognition
- Poor relationships
- Lack of fairness
- Values mismatch
How does your company fare in each of these categories? Which of these deficiencies could be affecting your team members? Once you have identified them, determine areas for growth or change. Then take responsibility as a leader and see what you can do to move the needle toward a healthier work environment.
Be a Role Model
One of the first things you can do as a leader is to model behaviors you want your people to adopt. We naturally imitate those in power. You can take advantage of your widespread influence by taking care of yourself and sharing this with your people. By doing this, you give them permission to care for themselves. And that is a wonderful gift.
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. We have lost loved ones, jobs, income, a sense of community, freedoms, hobbies that gave us joy, and on and on. The list is long and significant. Everyone is hurting to some degree.
Being empathetic at a time like this is powerful. Show genuine concern and forget about achieving an outcome. If someone chooses to share, remember they are bearing their soul and speaking from a place of vulnerability. It’s always essential to treat people with respect, but especially at these moments.
What can you do as a leader? Create safe spaces for your people. Let them know that you’ll keep their confidence and they will always have your respect. We conduct well-being conversations in our Building Resilience program. When people return from their breakout groups, they always say how good it felt to share. They also say it was uplifting to listen and be of service. You can be of great help just by listening.
Create a Safe Environment
People need to feel safe before they will share. That means creating a judgment-free environment. You can do this by first sharing how you are feeling in a team meeting. Your courageous leadership will create a path that others know they can then follow.
You may also want to consider these tips for verbal and non-verbal communication from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health when initiating conversations around mental health and well-being:
- Speak calmly, quietly, and confidently.
- Be aware of how you are delivering your words.
- Focus your attention on the other person to let them know you are interested in what they have to say.
- Use common words. Do not use official language, jargon, or complex terminology.
- Listen carefully. Do not interrupt with unsolicited advice or criticism.
- Use calm body language. Have a relaxed posture with unclenched hands and an attentive expression.
- Position yourself at a right angle to the person, rather than directly in front of them.
- Give the person enough physical space. This distance varies by culture, but normally two to four feet is considered an adequate distance.
- Get on the person’s physical level. If they are seated, try sitting, kneeling, or bending rather than standing over them.
- Pay attention to the person. Do not do anything else at the same time, such as answer phone calls or read e-mails.
Some people may be reluctant to share. My inspiring colleague John Hester has created a list of questions to help get the conversation started. Use these when checking in with someone who looks like they may be struggling.
- How are things going for you?
- How is your family?
- How are you feeling?
- What are you excited about?
- What concerns you?
- How is your connection to the team?
- What do you need more of or less of?
- How can I help?
Whether it’s children, spouses, or parents, everyone has family members they care about and love. Having loved ones is a common denominator that allows you to connect with your people. For example, if you were to ask me how I’m doing, I’d tell you that I’m struggling because my grandfather passed away. I have to process my grief while also supporting my mother, who is mourning the loss of her father.
One trust-building strategy is to start conversations with questions about the person’s family. Then, as they become more comfortable talking, ask them questions about how they are doing. By asking open-ended questions, the person may reveal something important. This also includes positive answers such as something they find inspiring.
Use the Right Style of Leadership
Effective leaders are situational—they provide the right amount of direction or support when a person needs it. Consider the alternatives: micromanaging (which destroys engagement) or hands-off management (which destroys morale).
SLII® is an easy-to-understand, practical framework that enables your managers to diagnose the development level of an employee for a task: D1—Enthusiastic Beginner; D2—Disillusioned Learner; D3—Capable, but Cautious, Contributor; and D4—Self-Reliant Achiever. Managers then use the appropriate directive and supportive behaviors to help them succeed: S1—Directing; S2—Coaching; S3—Supporting; and S4—Delegating.
My students in the Master’s in Executive Leadership program at the University of San Diego come to me elated when they’re able to get on the same page with their people and build a meaningful connection by applying the matching leadership style. Not only does their job as a leader become easier, but their people feel heard and supported, which leads to better engagement, productivity, and progress for the organization.
A good default position is to ask “How can I help?” Such a sincere question will always win the goodwill of the listener.
Leadership in the New Normal
The pandemic has changed us all in some way. We are different as individuals and as a society. We cannot and will not return to old models.
Prevention is better than cure for any well-being challenge—and especially burnout. It is much easier to recognize the warning signs of burnout and take care of ourselves than to recover from it. The key is to build trust with your people and help them thrive again. And that day will come.