As the pandemic phase of COVID-19 receded into history’s rearview mirror, many were hoping the accompanying global mental health challenges would fade along with it.
But that’s not what happened. Historically, one in ten adults in the US have symptoms of depression or anxiety—and this number reached four in ten during the height of the pandemic.
Fast forward to today. Some 32% of adults are still struggling from symptoms of anxiety and depression. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report provides additional commentary: “Although the world has recovered from the worst of the pandemic, employee stress remained at a record-high level.”
So here is the essential question: Why are mental health challenges still so pervasive after the worst of the pandemic has passed?
Toxic workplaces, the loneliness that can come with remote work, discriminatory behavior, and exclusionary environments are just a few of the factors contributing to psychological distress, according to the American Psychological Association.
Unresolved trauma caused by the pandemic is still wreaking havoc. Although the pandemic doesn’t fit traditional PTSD models, emerging research shows that the pandemic was an ongoing stressor that resulted in traumatic stress symptoms. It can take a long time to recover from a traumatic experience, especially without adequate access to resources. And when under stress for prolonged periods, like the past few years, we become profoundly fatigued and resilience declines.
This appears to be happening on a global scale. Difficulty concentrating at work, bursts of anger, disengagement, and frayed relationships are common consequences. Accordingly, mental health support is the work benefit that 61% of job seekers want.
Blanchard’s research collected during the pandemic shows 62% of Building Resilience participants reported experiencing anxiety.
Considering what is happening in the world right now, there’s a good chance that someone on your team is struggling. Here’s how you can help them.
Spot the Warning Signs
If you’ve ever had a mental health challenge or experienced burnout, you’re likely more attuned to the warning signs. People seem more anxious, frustrated, and angry. They may look sad. Or be quiet at work. Or be unable to focus. Or send emails far outside normal business hours.
I remember when one of my managers, someone I cared for very much, sent me an email at 2:00 a.m. I reached out to him to find out if everything was okay. I’ll stop my story here, but the point is that a caring relationship between leaders and their people is mutual. No one wants to feel isolated, regardless of their seniority or place in the food chain. And it can be very isolating to be a leader with a lot of responsibility during a difficult time.
According to Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic, warning signs that someone is experiencing chronic stress and mental illness typically fall into four categories:
- Changes in work habits such as lack of motivation, errors, difficulty concentrating, or lower productivity
- Behavior changes including mood volatility, worry, irritability, or restlessness
- Increased absences from work from someone who is normally punctual
- Recurring complaints of physical symptoms such as fatigue, headache, abdominal distress, or weight change
Look for the Root Cause
If your employees are experiencing burnout, chances are it’s not their fault. In fact, it may be time to take a hard look at your organization’s culture, practices, and expectations to see if these things unintentionally might be adding fuel the fire. The results of this inquiry may humble you.
According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), there are six primary causes of burnout:
- Perceived lack of control
- Lack of reward or recognition
- Poor relationships
- Lack of fairness
- Values mismatch
How does your company fare in each of these categories? Which of these deficiencies could be affecting your team members? Once you have identified them, determine areas for growth or change. Then take responsibility as a leader and see what you can do to move the needle toward a healthier work environment.
Be a Role Model
One of the first things you can do as a leader is to model behaviors you want your people to adopt. We naturally imitate those in power. You can take advantage of your widespread influence by taking care of yourself and sharing this with your people. By doing this, you give them permission to care for themselves. And that is a wonderful gift.
The pandemic took a toll on everyone. We have lost loved ones, jobs, income, a sense of community, freedoms, hobbies that gave us joy, and on and on. The list is long and significant. Everyone is hurting to some degree.
Being empathetic at a time like this is powerful. Show genuine concern and forget about achieving an outcome. If someone chooses to share, remember they are bearing their soul and speaking from a place of vulnerability. It’s always essential to treat people with respect, but especially at these moments.
What can you do as a leader? Create safe spaces for your people. Let them know that you’ll keep their confidence, and they will always have your respect. We conduct well-being conversations in our Building Resilience program. When people return from their breakout groups, they always say how good it felt to share. They also say it was uplifting to listen and be of service. You can be of great help just by listening.
Create a Safe Environment
People need to feel safe before they will share. That means creating a judgment-free environment. You can do this by first sharing how you are feeling in a team meeting. Your courageous leadership will create a path that others know they can then follow.
You may also want to consider these tips for verbal and nonverbal communication from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health when initiating conversations around mental health and well-being:
- Speak calmly, quietly, and confidently.
- Be aware of how you are delivering your words.
- Focus your attention on the other person to let them know you are interested in what they have to say.
- Use common words. Do not use official language, jargon, or complex terminology.
- Listen carefully. Do not interrupt with unsolicited advice or criticism.
- Use calm body language. Have a relaxed posture with unclenched hands and an attentive expression.
- Position yourself at a right angle to the person, rather than directly in front of them.
- Give the person enough physical space. This distance varies by culture, but normally two to four feet is considered an adequate distance.
- Get on the person’s physical level. If they are seated, try sitting, kneeling, or bending rather than standing over them.
- Pay attention to the person. Do not do anything else at the same time, such as answer phone calls or read e-mails.