With Mental Health at Risk, Now Is the Time to Lead With Authenticity, Flexibility, and Empathy

As America seeks to get back to business, companies across the nation are actively conducting physical risk assessments against the backdrop of an ever-changing COVID-19 landscape.  Preparing for and monitoring the reopening of physical workspaces is an essential first step; however, it does not preclude preparing for, supporting, and monitoring the post-pandemic emotional status of your workforce. It will require CHRO leaders, HR managers, and other C-suite executives to lead with authenticity, flexibility, and empathy.

The ensuing mental health pandemic prompted by COVID-19 will bring a tsunami of mental health issues born from isolation, fear, grief, and anxiety. Undoubtedly, this will play out in cubicles, conference rooms, classrooms, and retail counters – wherever Americans work.  For many of your employees, COVID-19 has been a horrible inconvenience, but for others, this unyielding virus has compromised their mental health, even placing some at risk for common mental health conditions.

According to the recently released Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition, powered by Total Brain in partnership with One Mind at Work, working Americans’ risk of addiction, depressive disorder, and PTSD has doubled between February and April 2020. The average working American is experiencing a 38% increase in stress since February. Anxiety levels are up 54% overall. For those employed Americans age 40-59, anxiety has increased a staggering 83%.

Further, the mental toll of COVID-19 on cognition is undeniable. The Mental Health Index data shows that workers scoring high levels of stress and anxiety are prone to make more mistakes and are taking 15% more time to complete standard tasks. Consider what a 15% loss in productivity means for your business, for the economy, and for society.

The Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition will be updated monthly. The Index contains data drawn from a weekly randomized sample of 500 working Americans taken from all walks of life and regions. The data is not survey data. It comes from a mix of validated tasks and questions that are part of a unique neuro-scientific assessment of the Total Brain. The sample is drawn from a universe of U.S. workers that include most U.S. regions, job levels, occupations, industries, and types of organizations (public vs. private). The Mental Health Index enables corporations to measure mental health progress and performance against a valid national benchmark.

So what does an authentic, flexible, and empathetic leadership style look like as we reopen the economy under the shadow of COVID-19?

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Authentic: Brené Brown, an expert on social connection, describes vulnerability and authenticity as lying at the root of human connection. And human connection is often dramatically missing from the workplace. Many leaders believe that they must project strength and perfection. Yet, research has shown that authentic leadership yields more positive and constructive behavior in employees and greater feelings of hope and trust – something people desperately need right now. Trust in a leader improves employee performance. Leaders who share their true vulnerabilities – fears and anxieties – are showing their authenticity. Ideas to consider:

  • Share: Share your feelings with your staff; let them see your vulnerability. Open up about your own anxieties and stress. Talk about ways you are working to support your mental health, including access to employee assistance programs and other internal and external corporate resources.
  • Forgive: Create a culture of forgiveness. No one is perfect. Let your employees know that mistakes happen and that you are there to support them and their efforts to rectify errors. Mental health decline impacts focus, concentration, memory. Expect mistakes; focus on the solutions.
  • Engage: Meet one-on-one or with teams if your company is large. Let employees be heard. Encourage people to express their concerns and fears. Create ongoing opportunities to drive robust conversations about mental health, whether one on one or in groups. Create opportunities for your employees to learn more about mental health strategies and available resources.

Flexible: COVID-19 has thrust us into a new world order. Be ready for change. Business as usual is no more. The employees holed up in their homes for the past three months are not necessarily the same people who will return to your place of work.  Many will walk through the doors with great trepidation. Ideas to consider:

  • Involve: Involve employees in discussions about changes to their workspace. Get their feedback and incorporate it into your planning.
  • Empower: Empower employees to help decide when, where, and how they work. Giving some control to individuals who have lost control over most aspects of their life can go a long way toward easing apprehension and fear. This is especially true for your most vulnerable staff, such as those with underlying physical and/or mental health conditions.
  • Innovate: The path you have been forging to meet your business goals will likely require detours along the way. Use the need to seek alternative routes as an opportunity to think in new and innovative ways such as staggering the return-to-work schedule among your staff and revising “office” hours so that employees uncomfortable with public transportation can drive to and from during off-peak hours.

Empathetic: Empathy is a critical leadership competency. To inspire employees to act and to perform to the best of their ability, leaders must understand the mindset of their workforce. Ideas to consider:

  • Train: Executives, managers, and supervisors may be great at what they do, but they are not therapists. Provide them with the training needed to identify mental health issues among their direct reports and ways to empathetically respond, including knowing when it is time to involve HR to broker therapeutic interventions if needed.
  • Explore: Look to available technologies that enable you to assess, monitor, and support the overall mental health of your workforce. Leverage self-care digital products that offer the privacy and confidentiality many of your people will be looking for, while giving you the tools to understand areas of key concern and how they align with specific teams, offices, regions, etc.
  • Communicate: Your employees have been living a life of unpredictability. Unpredictability is among the leading causes of anxiety. Workers are not looking for surprises. As you re-examine corporate policies to reflect today’s environment and the current state of mind of your people, make sure you communicate and communicate again. Use multiple channels to drive your messages – email, in-office signage, webinars, team calls, etc. And don’t forget to update the employee handbook accordingly. Success in getting your employees to embrace necessary changes to all aspects of the workplace will require full transparency and clear messaging.

Those who lead with authenticity, flexibility, and empathy will create an environment of connectedness that employees so desperately need right now. Opening the economy will require business leaders to open their minds to a new way of leading, one that places employee mental health on par with corporate fiscal health –  you cannot have one without the other.

Louis Gagnon is the CEO of Total Brain, a mental health and fitness platform that serves as a valuable HR tool to increase employee productivity and reduce healthcare costs.  He is Advisor to TPG Capital, a top-tier US private equity firm who named him CEO of Ride, a portfolio company that he restructured.  As a corporate executive, Louis held dual Chief Product Officer and Chief Marketing Officer roles at Audible/Amazon, Yodle and Monster Worldwide.  As an entrepreneur, Louis created and led 5 business and social enterprises on four continents, many of which were in the field of reproductive health.  He received a Bachelor of Business Administration from Laval University in Quebec City and a Masters of Science in Marketing from HEC-Montreal. His career has been awarded by his alma maters and his work has been featured in a number of management books and magazines including The Economist.

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