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Mental Health in the Epicenter of COVID
As the U.S. continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a responsibility to look at the indirect effects of the virus. Much like the direct medical, social and economic impacts of the pandemic, the effect on mental health is quite vast.
Those of us in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut area have been dealing with the full force of this virus for almost six months and can attest to the fact that it can be emotionally laborious and draining. That is why it is imperative that we take the time to deal with these mental and emotional hurdles.
As managers and leaders, we have a responsibility to monitor the health and well-being of our coworkers as well as ourselves. To do this and address the challenges this pandemic poses, we must first understand exactly what is happening.
The Effects of the Pandemic on Mental Health
Merely existing in a pandemic like COVID-19 can ramp up stress levels. People with existing mental health concerns like anxiety and depression can see their symptoms exacerbated during this time. People who have not experienced prior symptoms may be experiencing symptoms for the first time and they have the potential to be crippling.
The isolation of social distancing only makes this worse. Broadly speaking, human beings crave connection. Without that, we start to experience loneliness and sadness. This is especially true in heavily populated areas like we have here in the tri-state area. We thrive on socialization and we might be feeling socially disconnected. The combination of the unknown, social disconnection and losing our normal routines can intensify symptoms of stress.
What does that mean for your mental health? In times of stress, your body can react the same way as if you saw a bear in the woods which triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Your body releases cortisol to stay vigilant which can impact your executive functioning and emotional regulation. This can lead to exhaustion, sleep impairment, social withdraw, the inability to concentrate, tearfulness, decline in performance, and more. These not only affect your emotions, but also your physical well-being.
The impact of COVID-19 is a prolonged trauma that can overwhelm your ability to cope. Imagine what must be happening in your body if you saw a bear in the woods every day and what that means for your short- and long-term health.
Let’s be honest, it is okay to not be okay right now. We all have a lot going on and any reaction is most likely a normal reaction to this abnormal event. Therefore, all organizations should not only proactively promote the mental health resources available to staff, but also need to be on the lookout for distressed employees.
Spotting a Distressed Employee
All people react to stressors differently, so it’s difficult to provide any hard-and-fast rules or signs that an employee or coworker may be experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress. Trust your gut. You know your employees, especially if you’ve worked with them for a long time. If your instincts tell you that something is wrong, it is certainly worth reaching out.
One tell-tale sign is a change in either attitude or performance. If an employee seems like they’re not themselves, you should start an open, honest and empathetic conversation with them. Simply asking things like “I noticed you don’t seem like yourself and it made me worried,” or “Is there anything I can support you with?” go a long way.
You do not have to be their counselor or fix all their problems. Your role is to guide them to the appropriate professional resources and to listen. Additionally, there are many things you can do to help your employees and coworkers on a broad scale instead of an individual basis proactively.
Supporting a Culture of Well-Being
Incorporating organization-wide initiatives that empower your employees to address their individual mental well-being can be incredibly beneficial. First and foremost, proactively promote resources and benefits that support mental well-being at work. You do not want your employees who are struggling to have to search the intranet or ask Human Resources for help. You want them to already know what is offered.
Make sure that you actively promote mental health services and treatment services that your organization covers. Work with your HR department to do this and put together messaging that you can send to your employees reminding them of the resources they have. It could be treatment centers covered by your insurance plans, in-network behavioral health providers, your employee assistance program, childcare resources, legal support, etc.
You can also utilize national or local community resources if your organization has limited offerings. Well known organizations like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services all have hotlines and resources on their websites that you can promote to employees.
Encourage managers to have earnest conversations with their direct reports about their personal experiences. Ask managers to be more empathetic and flexible, as they are able. One technique that can be helpful is to have leaders start every meeting with a well-being check-in. By sharing their own vulnerabilities first, the team members might feel more encouraged to share what they are struggling with. For example, “My cat interrupted an important zoom call today,” or, “I am struggling with my fifth grader’s school assignments. Did anyone else have a hiccup today?”
Leading by example is a great first step. When people do not know how to react or behave, they look to leaders. You should try to role model and practice good self-care. If you do not take breaks or set boundaries, your employees will feel pressure to do that as well. If you’re open and honest about your own mental health journey, you create an environment where it’s safe for others you work with to do the same. Accept mental health days as sick days and take some yourself.
Think about a time where you had a stressful time in your life and what helped you then. See if you can reintroduce what helped before to your day if you are not already. Things like exercising, journaling, deep breathing, meditation can be helpful.
You won’t be able to solve all your employee’s problems, especially not here in the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. The most important thing is to keep your empathy intact and keep well-being top of mind. If we do that, we can make it through this challenge together and maybe even be better prepared for future hurdles.