Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development
The last few months have been a long haul, and from all indications, it will still be quite some time before the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. Information changes daily, forcing us to shift gears quickly and adjust plans in virtually every role we have — be it employee, leader, parent, caretaker, or even citizen given our current sociopolitical landscape. As time goes on, the continually shifting ground can be disorienting, and emotional overload can impact our mental health. It is not uncommon for people to feel motivated and focused one day (or week) and then burned out and struggling the next. For those experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions pre-COVID — perhaps silently — the impact may be even more severe.
In addition, “employees who have had to adjust to new vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and business practices from COVID-19 are now being re-traumatized through repeated exposure to images and threats of violence. For some, this moment is a wakeup call to make important and necessary changes, but for many, there is a cumulative deep emotional overload and exhaustion. Coping with these two huge social forces in the context of social distancing and greater financial uncertainty leaves people feeling frightened.” (Goodson, 2020) What can leaders do to support their team members and colleagues, while attempting to navigate this terrain? Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Commit to your own self-care and encourage your staff to do the same. If you don’t take the time and effort for self-care, you will not be able to do the other items on this list effectively. Here’s the rundown:
- Get enough sleep and keep a consistent schedule as much as possible.
- Take breaks. Get outside, go for a walk, meditate, get away from your screens even if it’s just for a few minutes.
- Move. Do something that you enjoy to get some exercise. Walking, yoga, running, strength training, golfing, dancing, whatever you like.
- Connect. We all have an innate need to connect with others. Suggestions: call that friend who makes you laugh, reach out to brighten someone’s day, do something fun with your family (instead of just the to-do list), or meet with a colleague for a socially distanced, outdoor coffee hour.
- Take time off as you are able. Even a long weekend or a few hours here and there to get away from work — and social media — can be rejuvenating.
- Stay aware. If you notice that a staff member or colleague shifts from being engaged and productive to detached or agitated, check-in. Not to judge or diagnose, but to see how they are and listen.
- Show compassion and reassurance. Normalize these ups and downs and the impact on everyone’s psyche — though, it may look somewhat different from person to person. Demonstrate empathy and allow for flexibility when possible as people try to meet the demands of caretaking, financial struggles, and more.
- Provide structure and continuity where possible. Talk about what isn’t changing, have project plans so that expectations are clear, keep people briefed on the latest information as you become aware, focus on vision, values, and mission as driving factors regardless of other changes.
- Stay realistic while maintaining some base expectations. Productivity may not be as high or consistent as it was pre-pandemic. There may be points of higher output and other times when family or emotional demands take a toll. Communication is key. What are the priority items that must be completed on time? Where can there be flexibility? How do you prefer people communicate with you if a deadline is at risk?
- Support skill-building. Most employees (and likely you, too) have needed to do their jobs in new ways to meet current needs. Some have put off this learning, hoping that they could ride it out until this situation passes. That is no longer an option. Covering for not having the skills to do the work needed adds to the stress. Do skills inventories with staff to see what areas to strengthen to do the work at hand in this environment. Support people in finding the skill-building opportunities they need and follow up to make sure they’ve followed through and found it helpful. Call MSU HR, Organization & Professional Development and/or Academic Advancement Network for guidance or read some of these questions to help assess learning needs.
- Communicate openly, honoring what is difficult while staying optimistic about the future. Share information you can promptly. If you are having a particularly bad day, it is probably best not to share all your worst thoughts with your staff. Talk to a trusted friend to get perspective first. As new announcements come out, check in with staff to see what their reactions are, what questions they have and discuss how the news could impact them.
- Provide referrals. If you notice that people are struggling, be sure to remind them of the resources available.
- Confidential counseling is available through the MSU EAP, Teledoc and through local mental health providers utilizing MSU insurance. If people don’t have insurance, they can contact their local Community Mental Health for services, or in case of emergency call their 24-hour crisis line at 800-372-8460.
- There are several other resources available through Health4U.
- Emotional Wellness resources including articles, webinars, and the MSU Grief and Loss Support Group
- MSU Moves, to support staying physically active
- Food and Nutrition information
- Alcohol, Nicotine, and Drug Information (ANDI): Providing evidence-based information about the health-related factors involved in the use of these substances.
- The MSU WorkLife Office provides resources for families, flexible work arrangements, and more.
“Leaders set the tone and culture of organizations. They should remind people to take care of themselves and share what they are doing to stay healthy and well. This may mean leaders must get outside their comfort zone. Employees are likely to be reassured by the willingness of leaders to show vulnerability and share how they are coping. This conveys to employees that they are not alone in what they are feeling and experiencing. Ideally, it communicates we are in this together and you are supported. Also, it demonstrates the organization’s commitment to transparency and continuous communication.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2020)
So grant yourself and others some grace as we move through this imperfectly. Take time to relax and connect with others to further resiliency, set realistic goals and give yourself credit for all that you’ve managed thus far in a challenging situation. Take care, Spartans. Together we can do this.
Scott Goodson (2020, June 25). How to Lead Through Employee Mental Health Issues During Covid. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from https://www.inc.com/scott-goodson-chip-walker/how-to-lead-through-employee-mental-health-issues-during-covid.html
Employee Mental Health & Well-being During & Beyond COVID-19. (n.d.). Retrieved August 19, 2020, from http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/Employer-Resources/Employee-Mental-Health-Well-being-During-Beyon