A mindful approach to helping your team through the current global crisis
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the globe, stress and anxiety around the virus have risen right alongside them. Companies around the world are now implementing precautionary and emergency measures to help “flatten the curve,” meaning slow the rate by which this illness spreads, reduce incidence of cases in their populations, and support efforts to protect public health. Because most working professionals spend a third of their time at work, employers are uniquely suited to support their team’s mental well-being during this uncertain time.
Concern about the virus and its risks is becoming palpable in many workplaces. Between event cancellations, travel restrictions, supply chain complications, personal concern about contagion, and more, nearly every business will feel the effects of this public health crisis in some way. The financial impact is also tangible via people’s 401(k), retirement accounts, gig economy workers/freelance job loss, and in many other ways — it trickles down through all levels of an organization, putting outsized pressure on populations already experiencing uncertainty over their health and that of their loved ones. Anxiety and worry about health is exacerbated by economic concerns related to financial stability and employment status.
This increase in employee stress and anxiety also has a hefty cost on organizations from absenteeism, lost productivity, and increased healthcare spend. Employers cannot ignore the impact that these environmental stressors will have on their people — and their business. Fortunately, many organizations have options for mitigating these effects and helping their employees stay healthy and safe.
First and foremost, organizations should follow best practices and protocol outlined by the World Health Organization, region-specific public health authorities such as the CDC, and state, county or city public health departments. It’s important to make decisions and implement measures with the well-being of local and global communities in mind, not just those in your office.
During times of uncertainty and high stress, it’s helpful to remember that you’re not alone in how you feel. Leaders play a key role in helping to guide and support their employees in a kind and compassionate way. Everyone will deal with this situation differently, so in the context of recent events, organizations should enable and empower employees to make decisions around their own health that best suit them, whether that be work-from-home options and/or flexible schedules outside of normal hours.
It’s important to keep in mind that while we’re all in this together, each person has unique life circumstances that may cause more or less acute concern. For example, we cannot know who has vulnerable family members who may be at greater risk, or who already suffers from anxiety and experiences the uncertainty and fear more acutely. Leading with compassion and empathy is more critical than ever.
Practicing self-compassion during this time is also important. Be honest about how you’re truly feeling, and remember that if you’re not feeling well, you’re not only being kind to yourself by staying home, but you’re protecting those you work with as well.
Ways to practice Compassionate Leadership:
Look: Take time to check-in with your team. Look for the unsaid. How are people's energy levels?
Listen: Practice mindful listening. Give your team space to be open and honest about how they feel, both mentally and physically.
Feel: Everyone is going to be feeling a range of different emotions. Taking the time to acknowledge how someone else is truly feeling empowers us to respond with kindness.
Respond: In times of high stress, it's easy to let frustrations get in the way of skillful communication. Pause and give yourself space to respond in a skillful and kind way.
Implementing stress surveys can be a great way to measure and track stress levels across your organization. This will allow you to get a read on stress so you can adapt your workplace mental health programs accordingly, and target specific groups of demographics that might be more affected than others with custom resources and tools.
Based on the results, you can recommend tools and resources to help employees reduce their stress levels. Some examples could be meditations geared toward reducing stress or anxiety, breathing exercises, or thought leadership content on how to deal with negative thoughts and be more empathetic toward others.
When organizations invest in preventive and supportive mental health solutions, a little goes a long way. Now more than ever, employees should not need to travel to access the resources they need to cope with and reduce stress. Mindfulness training can be done online or through a mobile app, making it accessible to almost everyone.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression and can have a significant impact in the workplace. “Our brains have developed to focus on threat. Short-term stress and anxiety can be part of a healthy range of emotional experience and at times can help us stay safe. However, when we experience chronic stress, stress from which we experience no break, it can tax our immune system and cause more severe problems like anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. Meditation helps deactivate the emotional center of the brain which is responsible for emotional reactivity that keeps us hooked to news cycles and fuels chronic stress. When we help our brains stay grounded we are better able to engage the rational part of our brains. This can help us understand information and make decisions from a place of fact versus panic” says Megan Bell Jones, Chief Science Officer at Headspace. She adds that meditation works by “helping people regulate emotions, changing the brain to be more resilient to stress, and improving stress biomarkers."
Offering your employees a digital mindfulness program could help support their mental health during this period of uncertainty and worry.
Moments of uncertainty tend to leave room for many contradictory — and sometimes unsettling — stories. It’s important that teams receive frequent, clear, and reliable information. Make sure that, as new facts emerge from trusted public health sources, that information is clearly and immediately provided to employees in language they understand. Advise your team not to share alternative messages on Slack or other internal channels to keep clear guidelines and prevent misinformation.
At Headspace, our People Operations team sends out weekly status updates with resources, verified information, and an action plan. Every people manager should also feel enabled and empowered through proper training to support and educate their teams.
Louisa Cartwright, VP of People Operations at Headspace recommends employers to prioritize psychological safety. “It’s important that, as leaders, we do all we can to create the conditions for our employees to feel supported. Psychological safety should be a top priority. How might we help to empower our employee communities with regular, consistent, and trusted information allowing them to make the right decisions, specific to their personal needs, as well as for those around them. Another consideration as businesses start to implement social distancing is the need for ongoing, regular, and open communication being even more crucial. Employees may start to feel isolated so we need to start thinking about ways we can create a virtual sense of community and support.”
Employees often take their cues from human resource teams, but it’s essential that HR and people operations professionals take care of themselves, too. Think of it like an airplane: you must put on your own mask before assisting others. People operations are particularly stretched right now facilitating remote working, creating new policy, and evolving campus processes. If you are a people leader, ensure you are taking time to prioritize your own well-being.
Last but not least, rather than simply reacting, taking moments to pause and check in with yourself will help you to be intentional in every interaction and make better decisions for your team, from a place of awareness and clarity.