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Employee Experience

It’s okay not to be okay: How managers can support employee mental health in times of change

During uncertain and fluid times, the need for strong, calm, trustworthy leadership is more important than ever.

The American Psychology Association

Ask ‘are you okay?’

First thing’s first: ask a simple question: ‘Are you okay?’ And then really listen to the answer. Next ask, “Do you have everything you need?”

It’s crucial that managers and people leaders stay as empathic as possible. It’s a scary time for everyone, so a simple ‘are you okay?’ should be the first question you ask before anything else. Next ask, “Do you have everything you need?” Only when you feel like your people are okay and have everything they need should you start talking about work.

Empathy is extremely important at the moment

Courtney Seiter, Director of People at Buffer

Recognize that it’s okay to not be okay

“Acknowledge that this is something we’ve never experienced before,” says psychologist Dr. Grin Lord, PsyD, ABPP, Clinical Product Psychologist at Youper. “Practice what we call in therapy ‘radical acceptance’.”

Radical acceptance, Dr. Lord explains, is a mindfulness skill about recognizing the pain that someone is feeling. “Understand that surrounding the pain is suffering, which in psychology we define as the lack of acceptance of reality.”

“Radical acceptance is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is.”

- Psychology Today


Lord says that what she’s seeing now in both her professional world and clinical world are attempts to make things feel normal, when everything feels the opposite. “I’m reading and seeing a lot about the importance of keeping to a routine to make yourself feel normal. Whereas I think it’s more helpful to go towards acceptance of this is not normal! And it’s okay for it not to feel okay.”

My advice for managers would be to recognize – and communicate to your people – that it's okay to be stressed, anxious or scared.

Dr. Grin Lord, PsyD, ABPP, Clinical Product Psychologist at Youper

Be flexible

An important part of a manager’s role is to make plans and define guidelines or structure for their time. But in times of change, it’s important to embrace flexibility. Accept that making hard-and-fast plans is hard when things are changing quickly.

“Rigid guidelines or structure need to be met with some flexibility,” says Lord. “People may be managing kids while trying to get work done – it’s not a normal situation.”

And as such, it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone will be able to give 100%. If your people are juggling childcare alongside their day job, they’re going to need your understanding more than ever before.

“Now is not the time to be expecting 100% from your people. Make sure you make that clear”
Lori McLeese, Global Head of Human Resources at Automattic

Recognize your own stress

It’s important that you manage your own stress to stay an effective and productive manager. Make sure you’re taking breaks to reset and refocus. “Being consistent is really important,” says Lord. “This is a time where as a leader you could become really inconsistent if you're looking for the answer, solution or quick fix.”

Instead, slow your reactions down and accept that it’s okay to ask for thinking time or to come back to someone with the answer once you’ve had time to mull it over. If you don’t know, say so.

“Stick to being totally genuine,” advises Lord.

Model self-care

Your people will be looking to you to find out what is acceptable. If you’re going for a walk during the day then let them know. It’s important that they can feel they can do the same without feeling they’ll be criticized.

“This is not the time to be like a hero,” says Lord. “We’re all struggling and right now trust is crucial to your relationships. And part of that is being authentic.”

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication is arguably one of the most important parts of any manager’s role. But right now it’s more important than ever. Acknowledge that of course like this feels unusual and strange. Ask your people to please talk to you about it. Make it clear that you want them to tell you what they’re worried about and that you’ll try and solve it together.

It’s crucial that managers get to know their people so they can be aware of what’s going on in their lives, what individual challenges they may have, and their ‘tells.’

“Ask your people to keep their cameras on,” says Dave Gilbert, VP of Talent at Gitlab. This not only helps with communication, but also helps to get to know your people and learn more about their lives.

“Get to know your people personally,” says Dave. “Spend the extra time required. And hope and expect that they'll be willing to share some things about their life.” That way you’re far more likely to recognize when someone’s struggling. This is more important than ever when you’re not face-to-face every day.

If you sense that your people are low or acting unusually then that’s the time to step in. “That’s why really listening is so important,” says Lord. “Schedule some one-on-one time with that person to understand what their needs are and support them.”

“Poor communication in this time increases anxiety”
Dr. Grin Lord, PsyD, ABPP, Clinical Product Psychologist at Youper

Read guidance from CDC on manager communication

Be open and honest

Transparency is crucial during times of uncertainty. As well as making sure that you’re not downplaying how unpredictable the situation is. Be upfront that there may not be a current timeline for moving everyone back into the office – or whatever it might be. Let your people know that you simply don’t have all the answers. “Be truthful,” says Lord. “Make sure you’re sticking to the facts, and not minimizing uncertainty.”

Lord says it crucial that managers stay ‘reality based’. This means accepting the fact that reality is changing and difficult, and then communicating this.

You’re not alone

Buffer’s Director of People, Courtney Seiter recommends bringing people together as much as possible. Buffer is a social media platform that has always had a ‘distributed teams,’ which means most of its people work from their home office.

To combat isolation and encourage togetherness, Courtney recommends experimenting with different kinds of virtual gatherings. These gatherings should be an opportunity for people to get on a video call to chat about life and share concerns or stresses.

They’ve also created slack groups for employees in similar work situations: people living solo, employees with partners, employees with kids/family. Everybody in those situations is experiencing this differently right now and they are helping to build these like-minded employee resource groups.

“Everyone needs outlets for stress and anxiety,” says Courtney.

Recognize there’s no silver bullet

This also follows when it comes to advising people what to do to help their mental health. “Everyone is different and will respond to different things depending on their personality type,” says Lord.

While there are plenty of helpful tips, avoid prescribing doing X, Y and Z to make people feel better. “Avoid telling people things like, ‘try mediating you're going to feel great!’. Because everyone is different and it’s okay not to feel great right now.”

Make resources readily available

“Life wasn’t perfect before! We all had issues and stress before this came along,” points out Lord. “So Covid-19 will just be making things more stressful as we try to work remotely.”

Managers should be making their people aware of the mental health support they can utilize during this time, whether that’s through their insurance or other company benefits.

“We reimburse people for mental health apps like Headspace or Calm,” says Lori. “And we make sure to remind everyone: ‘Remember! In case you haven't used this benefit, this is here for you’.”

But it isn’t all about self-help. “Encourage your people to talk to a professional if they’re at all anxious or stressed,” advises Lord. “It’s totally appropriate for this point in time. You could even try time-limited therapy.

“There are actual therapists that do telehealth with you right now, covered under your insurance anywhere in the world. You shouldn’t have to feel like you have to have really extreme anxiety to reach out to a professional.”

Tips for reducing isolation anxiety

  • Reduce the amount of news you consume at home. And only to trusted news sources.
  • Monitor your social media use. If you feel like it’s helping you, then great. “Social can be a great place where people can come together and feel connected,” says Lord. But if it’s getting you down, then maybe step away from the feeds.
  • Organize a fun group event that’s not to do with work. A lunch, pub quiz, a digital happy hour or a game of ‘meet my pet’. Dr. Lord recommends putting some guidelines around these so they don’t turn into a chance to ruminate on worries. “Start with something like: ‘Hey, we're all going through a lot right now, so let's keep this conversation fun and use this time to connect.”
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you do get anxious. “That’s going to happen,” says Lord. “You’re human.”
  • Try to get outside if it’s socially responsible to do so. Lord says her clients who practice social distancing while, say going out for a drive, report feeling better. “They’re less panicked than the people that have really been inside their house with only access to the internet.”
  • Limit your exposure to screens. Especially important when the day has no definitive start and end.
  • Follow your instincts. Lord recommends trusting your gut about what will keep you safe and comfortable. ”Use this time to evaluate your old routines. This can be a time of reflection to find out what’s working and what isn’t in your life.”

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