According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), almost one in five U.S. adults has a mental illness. While employees should always prioritize their mental and emotional health, it’s even more vital during a global pandemic. In a Market Watch research survey, nearly 70% of U.S. workers said that COVID-19 is the “most stressful time” of their entire professional careers, even when compared to events like the Great Recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. As a result of coronavirus-related stress, productivity is dropping at a time when organizations need to remain more agile than ever.
As a learning leader, you are positioned to help your organization succeed during the pandemic. But you can’t drive change if you’re burned out. As Justin Dauer, vice president of human-centered design and development at software company bswift and author of “Cultivating a Creative Culture,” says, “It’s easy to forget to check in on yourself when your role is centered around the development of others.”
1. Stick to a Routine
COVID-19 has put many aspects of our daily routines — such as listening to podcasts on the way to work or heading to a workout class after leaving the office — on hold. As a result, it is difficult to “draw the line between when work begins and when it ends,” says Dr. Laura Hamill, chief people officer and chief science officer at Limeade.
Haesue Jo, LMFT, clinical support lead at online counseling platform BetterHelp, echoes this sentiment. “It’s really easy right now, because we’re staying home, to let go of any sense of structure or routine,” she says. One of the best ways to maintain mental and emotional wellness when working remotely is to implement and stick to “some kind of structured routine,” Jo adds. Simple actions, like waking up at the same time you normally would, taking regular lunch breaks or simply enjoying a cup of coffee on the porch each morning, can create structure and, in turn, improve productivity.
Sticking to a routine can also help you “shut off” after hours, which can be difficult now that “we no longer have boundaries between home and work,” Jo says. Hamill suggests adopting a “regular ritual” that signals the end of the workday, whether it’s taking a walk or simply leaving your laptop in your workspace.
2. Don’t Forget the Basics
Self-care doesn’t have to mean taking lavish vacations or indulging in expensive spa days. Some of the best ways to take care of ourselves are simple: getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating healthy foods. “These are some of the pillars of wellness, because if you’re not feeling well physically, it’s definitely going to impact your mood and ability to perform,” Jo says. A RAND study found that a lack of sleep among the U.S. workforce is a $411 billion problem, causing employees to miss 1.2 million working days each year. As a learning leader, it’s critical to take care of yourself so you can help others achieve their goals.
Hamill suggests making time for “what fuels you,” whether it’s going outdoors, enjoying a family meal or spending time with a pet. Dauer says simple actions like “pausing with intent” at intervals throughout the day can help clear your head, leaving you better able to tackle the next task on your to-do list. To perform at our highest capacity in all areas of our lives, “everyone, as much as humanly possible right now, should be prioritizing their physical and psychological well-being, paramount to all else,” Dauer says.
3. Ask For Help if You Need It
Self-care can help reduce stress and anxiety, especially during times of uncertainty. However, it’s important to regularly assess your mental and emotional well-being to determine if and when you should seek professional help. This self-assessment is easier said than done, however. Scott Roy, chief executive officer and co-founder of Whitten & Roy Partnership, says, “It’s very easy for us as human beings to slip into ‘autopilot’ — doing things the way we do them, regardless of how we feel.” The first step toward improving your mental and emotional health is “waking up” to the fact that you’re overwhelmed, he says. Mental health assessments can help you understand your current emotional state so that you can determine a proper course of action.
Online counseling services make it possible to speak with a licensed therapist “from the safety of your own home,” Jo says. Since the pandemic started, there’s “definitely been an increase” in people seeking remote counseling due to COVID-related anxiety and stress. In fact, in Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index, 75% of respondents reported that the pandemic has had a “negative impact” on their mental health.
If you’re struggling with a mental illness, Cornerstone OnDemand recommends talking to your manager so you can work together to find solutions to help you continue working to the best of your ability. Dauer says it’s “completely reasonable” to set expectations with your manager regarding when you need uninterrupted time to focus on important projects and when you need time to decompress.
Hamill agrees it’s important to “speak up” and “be real” with your manager about how you’re feeling and what accommodations could help you better navigate this uncertain time. Talking about your mental health with your manager is an exercise in vulnerability but, ultimately, can help you get the support you need.
As the pandemic continues to alter our personal and professional lives, Dauer says it’s “absolutely imperative” to practice self-care every day. Prioritizing your mental and emotional well-being will leave you better positioned to serve your learners at a time when learning has never been more vital to business outcomes. And remember: Our lives are not normal right now. “We are all doing the best we can given the circumstances,” Hamill says. “Give yourself grace.”