In an April 2020 survey by Qualtrics, nearly half of Americans reported that the COVID-19 crisis has been harmful to their mental health. There have been significant reported rises in social isolation (75%), anxiety (57%), stress (67%) and emotional exhaustion (53%). To make matters worse, the reported cases of COVID in America rise every day, and people are talking about the next wave as if the first wave ever ended.
Pre-COVID, emotional wellness wasn’t a top priority for most leaders; however, ignoring the mental health of your employees at this stage of the game is no longer an option. Failure to tap into the emotional well-being of your people and unite your team will only exacerbate the problems cited in the Qualtrics study. It would also be surprising to your employees if their manager weren’t dealing with the same emotional wellness issues.
Like it or not, emotional wellness is now a workplace issue and, thus, a leadership issue. You cannot outsource concern for your people during a pandemic and quarantine; it must come from you.
A good place to start is to understand what the stress from quarantine and the pandemic is doing to our brains. Humans are fairly adept at dealing with short-term stress; while it may not be pleasant, we’re capable of handling looming deadlines and running from dangerous scenarios. What we’re not great at is dealing with long-term stress, which affects our emotional well-being and productivity.
The pandemic has cooked up a hearty long-term stress stew for us, made up of these delicious ingredients: loss of control, grief (over life as we knew it as well as any personal losses), change and ambiguity — to name a few. Say “hello” to mental exhaustion. Parents are trying to manage their children, their workload and, possibly, their marriages, while some may also have family members and/or friends who have COVID or have died from it. Meanwhile, work never stops. Bills never stop. Divisive politics never stop. The mental exhaustion never stops.
This is an unprecedented position for a leader to find himself or herself in. You should not feel inadequate if you’re unsure how to lead right now. In fact, it’s an excellent time to show people your uncertainty and your humility. It will make you relatable, and you can use it as a bonding moment.
To go a few steps further …
1. Ask and Respond
Don’t pretend like everything is — or should be — OK. Lead your check-in conversations with transparency and honesty. Start the conversation by letting people know it’s OK if they still feel stressed and perhaps even a little “crazy.” We’ve been in quarantine for months now, and people might feel insecure about the fact that they’re still having a hard time managing their lives.
2. Consistently Check in
Checking in with your team members is not a one-and-done process. Make it a weekly or biweekly routine, based on the needs of your people. Quarantine-induced stress doesn’t care whether we expressed it; it will continue in full force for as long as the conditions remain the same. Ongoing check-ins will show your team that you care and empathize.
3. Do a Crisis Personality Exercise
Having your team members talk about their crisis personalities — i.e., the ways in which they’ve risen to the occasion as well as the ways in which they’ve fallen short. How have both sides of the coin helped and hurt the team? Share your own crisis personality as well.
4. Open up
When a leader acts like nothing’s wrong during a pandemic-induced quarantine, it can make others feel like there’s something wrong with them. You may have trained yourself to be calm, cool and collected during a time of crisis, which is admirable; however, being overly calm, cool and collected at the expense of showing your humanity might come off as detached.
5. Close With Gratitude Rather Than Leading With Gratitude
While we all know we should always feel grateful for what we have, gratitude might not be the overwhelming emotion we feel right now. Leading with gratitude during check-in conversations or team meetings might inadvertently dismiss people’s emotions, leading them to keep what they are feeling to themselves out of a feeling of guilt for not feeling more grateful. Allow a temporary pity party, and then close with gratitude once everyone has expressed what he or she is going through.
6. Redefine, Set and Manage Expectations
Quarantine or no quarantine, we do well when we understand what is expected of us. So, set expectations, be clear and hold people accountable — but allow for some flexibility as well. Adaptability is the name of the game right now. We are living and working in unique conditions, and deadlines might have to shift to allow for team members’ varying circumstances.
7. Understand People’s Personal Values
Make an effort to understand what your team members value individually. Some might want extra work to keep them busy during quarantine, while others might want — or need — their time freed up a bit. Check in with each team member to learn what’s happening in everyone’s life.
8. Recognize Behavior Change
When someone’s behavior shifts, it means something is up. Don’t ignore it; check in, be willing to listen and empathize, and adapt.
Lastly, don’t forsake your own well-being in the process. Find your own support. Leaders are in an especially difficult position right now; not only are they responsible for the health of their department or organizations, but they are also responsible for the health of their people. This situation doesn’t leave much room for their own well-being. You can’t — and shouldn’t — go at it alone. Figure out a way to prioritize your own care.
None of these strategies is easy. Leaders are not (for the most part) psychologists, yet this unique period is calling for some therapeutic asking and listening on the part of leaders. You don’t have to have all the answers, and you don’t have to act like you have it all together. You’re human, just like everyone else. Flex your empathy muscle, be understanding, and work together to find the new normal — for yourself and for the people you lead.