The Role of Leaders in Supporting Mental Health

By Tania Cervoni

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Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the mental health and well-being of employees. The need to support mental health – something that was already an organizational priority for many – has become an urgent matter as this crisis is taking its toll on productivity, motivation and engagement. 

According to a global study of over 2,700 employees undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated; 67% of people report higher stress; 57% are feeling greater anxiety; and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.  And while addressing mental health is not a key competency of most leaders, there are several things leaders can do to help their people right now.

  1. Reduce the stigma of mental health by talking about it. Pre-COVID, a typical manager-employee check in conversation most likely focused on employee goals and tasks to the exclusion of all else. During this time of disrupted work routines, job insecurity, homeschooling and more, conversations have expanded to include a discussion on stress and it’s impact on the achievement of those goals .  This is a positive shift – the more we are willing to address the impact of stress – whether that be professional or personal stress – on our work, the more we normalize the conversation about mental health. Of course, getting people to open up and share is not always easy. It requires leaders to demonstrate that they too are facing challenges. This can be a fine line to walk as it is important to be authentic and vulnerable while still respecting employee privacy and maintaining a sense of optimism for the future.
  2. Actively support opportunities to ‘unplug’. This is a perfect time to actively be talking to your team members about the importance of stepping away from their work and taking time to recharge. In this environment of remote work and social distancing, many employees feel that they are always connected to their jobs and home responsibilities with little available to provide much needed distractions. Insist that your employees take time off to engage in fun or relaxing activities – whether that’s a designated hour in the day or specific days in the week. Of course if you expect employees to take you seriously then you need to be prepared to walk the talk yourself!
  3. Get informed about mental health resources. Become aware of the various resources available to support you and your employees. You may also want to speak with HR leaders to understand how they might support leaders like you in having conversations around mental health and wellness. And, while leaders should not be expected to play the role of organizational psychologist, there is benefit in seeking out training to help you in identifying mental health challenges and knowing how to respond. For example, the Canadian training company Workright, offers an online certificate in Mental Health and Psychological Safety at Work which provides foundational information for how to manage and support mental health in the workplace. Get the support you need to position you and your team to navigate this unprecedented time successfully. 

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