To preserve mental well-being, managers need to reach out to employees with empathy and patience
No matter the state of your mental health before the onset of the pandemic, it is a good bet that it has suffered over the past several months of social distancing, remote learning, and plain old fear of the future. And now that we have had to blow up the barriers between home and work life, it is tougher than ever to stay sane 24/7.
“Anyone who is feeling down has a lot of company,” said Damian Vaughn, PhD, chief programs officer for BetterUp and a research psychologist, who shared insights on the pandemic era’s mental-health challenges during a recent webinar.
“Since the pandemic started, over a third of adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder, according to the Census Bureau,” Vaughn said. “These are all a consequence of this shared experience we’re having — like increased sadness and irritability.” These challenges can’t help but find their way into workplace interactions, Vaughn adds. And as personal problems intersect with the usual workplace conflicts — which everyone is trying to negotiate over Zoom — it is no surprise there is a toll on productivity.
“Our professional lives and our personal lives are one now,” Vaughn said. “And we’re dealing with child care, elder care, and distance learning, while at the same time operating as business leaders. And amidst all of that, it is in the context of radical strategic changes and transformations of businesses.”
That is a heavy load on anyone, even people who weren’t already getting treatment of some sort for chronic depression or anxiety pre-pandemic. In fact, Vaughn explained, part of the current problem is supporting people who haven’t received such a formal diagnosis.
“Many people are not thriving,” Vaughn said. “We’re languishing, but we’re not quite clinical, so we’re in this sort of gray area.”
Flexing the mental health muscles every day
Improving mental health needs to be thought of as an exercise akin to going to the gym, boosting our “mental fitness” through strategies like stress management and learning to become resilient. To help employees withstand the multiple stressors they face today, Vaughn believes two things are required: a company's commitment to truly prioritize mental health as an essential component of wellness and the resources to help employees help themselves.
“Do you really have the right resources in place to support the folks in your organization?” Vaughn said. “And if you do, do your employees actually know about them and how to access them?” These resources, he added, won’t work well if a company adopts a “one to many” approach; since mental health takes many forms and means different things to different people, resources have to be personalized as well as scalable.
As an example of how this approach can work, Vaughn pointed to a company that received coaching from the BetterUp team.
“We saw upticks in their ability to manage and cope with lots of change and uncertainty brought about by this global pandemic,” Vaughn recalled.
Focusing on managers helps achieve the goals of scaling mental wellness while also giving people the skills to respond to their team’s needs with personalized, empathetic solutions. “Focusing on your managers as vanguards of wellness is really important,” Vaughn said. “That means making sure that managers in your organization have their antennae up and that they’re aware of their team members’ individual situations.”
Many people struggle in silence in front of coworkers. To reach out to them, Vaughn suggests managers need to replace the typical check-in question, “What are you working on?” with “How are things going? Let’s talk a bit about how you feel and how you’re coping.”
That sensitivity is especially important if a co-worker seems to be, well, losing it — and most of us, especially people with kids, have probably been close to or passed the meltdown point multiple times in the past several months.
“An important skill set for managers is developing empathy so they can respond accordingly,” Vaughn said. “If their emotional tanks are on empty, how can we help them refuel their batteries? Is it more time off? Is it a better workstation? Is it supporting their work environment at home, their physical environment, and investing in that? Is it just individual interventions and support? All of these things are key right now.”