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THE MOTHER OF ALL STRESS TESTS

Watch Quartz’s workshop on supporting employees’ mental health

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“How are you?” has never been the best way to ask authentically about how someone was feeling. But before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a sufficient and widely accepted form of checking in, especially in the workplace.

Now, it can feel tone deaf or confusing, if only because our baseline for “okay” has been drastically altered.

What can companies, managers, and colleagues do to help people cope with the current pressures and steer clear from burnout? Quartz put that question to eight experts for a Quartz at Work (from home) workshop, held Oct. 29, on how to manage mental health at every level of your organization.

You can watch the full workshop by clicking on the large image above, or check out our recap below, highlighting our guests’ best advice:

Understand unresolved grief

The pandemic has led to personal and collective losses on many levels. George Kohlrieser, a clinical psychologist and professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, shared insights into handling unresolved grief, a major contributor to mental health problems, with real costs to businesses in the form of lost productivity and leadership challenges.

According to Kohlrieser, there are four steps to resolving grief:

  1.  First, know when you are in a state of grief. Companies are dealing with people who are grieving and they’re often not aware of it. Many people in grief are equally in the dark about their own condition.
  1. Accept that it’s good to grieve. Grief is natural and most times can be dealt with without psychotherapy. It usually doesn’t need to be medicalized.
  1. Look for solutions. There are many ways to respond to grief, whether simple or complex, and keep moving.
  1. Learn to recognize when grief is finished. “Your grieving is finished when you come back to a state of joy,” said Kohlrieser. And everyone can get there, he told the panel. “It is possible to get over all griefs,” he said, “no matter how traumatic they’ve been, or how deep they’ve been.
Further reading from Quartz at Work and George Kohlrieser: How to cope with grief in the workplace

Listen to what the team needs

Mid-pandemic research from Limeade, the employee-experience software firm, found that most employees did not feel their managers genuinely cared for them, even though the majority of managers felt they were showing employees real concern. Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor at the Limeade Institute, which conducted the research, suggested the simple act of asking people what they need may allow managers to bridge that gap.

Rather than always looking for top-down solutions, she recommended that executives turn to staff for solutions. “Managers and leaders can actually listen to the experience of their teams and understand what it looks like to ask those right questions and respond in a way that demonstrates care,” she said.

Communicate regularly about difficult topics and build diverse teams

Resilience is taking a hit during the pandemic, according to Cigna research. But managers can help strengthen their teams’ mental toughness by sharing information about the state of their business, and broaching tough issues with employees, said Kelcey Blair, vice president of clinical solutions for Evernorth, Cigna’s newest health services subsidiary, and the sponsor of our workshop.

Blair also recommended building a diverse workforce for many reasons, including this: Employees in more diverse workplaces who talk regularly about problems like systemic racism are more likely to be highly resilient, she said, citing Cigna data.

Encourage proper use of any mental health medications that an employee may be taking

Cigna also found that prescriptions for antidepressants, anxiety, and insomnia medications rose sharply at the beginning of the pandemic, reversing a five-year downward trend, said Blair. It’s a revealing development, but also a positive sign that employees want to treat their symptoms in a healthy manner, she said.

Check in regularly, and ask specific questions

Move beyond questions (like “How are you?”) that lead to pre-programmed responses, said Jennifer Fisher, chief well-being officer at Deloitte US. For example, she likes to ask people how they’re sleeping. Or, she suggested, start a meeting by asking everyone to say two words that describe the way they’re feeling in that moment. “If somebody says, ‘I’m feeling sad and hopeless,’ I’m going to take note, and then ping them later and say, ‘Hey, you know, you said this. Is there anything I can do? What’s going on?'”

Similarly, psychiatrist Naeem Dalal, public health chairperson of the Zambia Medical Association and a frequent speaker on global mental health issues, suggested paying attention to specific clues, like sleep, but also diet. For some people, dealing with stress can lead to binging certain types of sugary or fatty foods; for others, it may lead to a food aversion.

Ensure that leaders and managers have fresh mental health material to work with

Bolstering emotional wellness is not a one-and-done kind of training exercise. Because it requires ongoing work, the curriculum and training material need to be refreshed often. Organizations should also assist managers by teaching them how to have difficult conversations, Deloitte’s Fisher advised. If a manager thinks someone is struggling, or if they’re struggling themselves, they need to know where to go for additional support.

Be the chief of your own wellbeing

Not every company has a chief well-being officer (yet), but that doesn’t mean you can’t play that role for yourself. Fisher had the following tips:

  • Ask yourself: What are your priorities? What do you absolutely need to show up at your best, not just in your work, but in your whole life?
  • Schedule it. Put the things you need to be well—exercise,  meals, even bedtime—on your calendar. Treat each one like a meeting with your boss.
  • Reach out. Involve others so they can hold you accountable, but also so they can help you.
  • Allow for failure. Accept the times you veer off course.
  • Find joy and gratitude. Look for ways to be thankful for what others have done for you and how they made you feel. You’ll both benefit.

Be vulnerable and human

Managers and leaders need to normalize the conversation around mental health by sharing stories of their own experiences, said Jade Stanley, client services strategy team manager and peer-to-peer mental health program leader at Spotify. “Having leaders talking about their own mental health experiences, it really just had an amazing impact on the culture of the company, where we felt that we were able to suddenly be open and honest about our own experiences,” she said.

Further reading from Quartz at Work: How to talk to your boss about mental health

Build knowledge before creating new tools

Before a company can jump into offering therapy apps or other tools, its leaders should have a sound understanding of typical mental health needs and trends in psychological thinking, said Stanley. That could mean talking to experts or asking people on staff to share what they’ve learned through experience.

Provide access to resources like digital forms of therapy, medication education, and employee coaching

Because therapy can be costly and time-consuming to find, several panelists suggested that companies consider providing online tools for psychological care and information, including forms of digital cognitive behavioral therapy, and other kinds of coaching. Think about personalizing the solution for each employee as much as possible, Blair said, “so that employees have access to the right support, when, where and how they need it.”

Dalal also urged company leaders to review the insurance coverage employees have, to be sure that it’s sufficient—because good mental health care, he noted, can be very expensive.

Provide wellbeing days and flexible hours

Ted Kezios, VP of global benefits at Cisco, says his firm has so far given employees three “A Day For Me” company holidays, one in each month of May, July, and August. “We just said ‘The most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself, and so we’re offering these free days without people having to dip into their vacation days,'” he explained, “and that went over a long way.” The common feedback: “I needed it more than I thought.”

Further viewing from Quartz at Work (from home): Watch our workshop on how to care for your mental health during the coronavirus quarantine

Know when and how to direct people to professional services

Though your company may provide peer-to-peer counseling or apps, some employees will be struggling with severe illness, Dalal observed. Companies need to have clear plans in place for connecting their staff to outside resources.

Don’t leave anyone behind

Too often, the best benefits are not offered across a company and even beyond, Dalal said. There may be members of the informal workforce who clean a firm’s offices, for example, and they deserve the same attention for their mental health. Essential workers, too, he added, need access to psychological care and concern for their work-life balance. “I think Covid-19 is a stark reminder to say you can’t leave anyone behind,” he said, “because we are as strong as our weakest link.”

Make psychological wellness a strategic priority

Wellness should be more than a “tick-box” exercise, said panelist Geoff McDonald, a former Unilever executive and the co-founder of Minds@Work, a consultancy dedicated to eradicating stigma around mental health problems.

In an impassioned plea near the end of the hour, McDonald described what he has seen and heard from corporations who claim to care about their employee’s emotional wellbeing: “We have a wellbeing week, and we show you all this love and care for one week of the year. And then for the other 51 weeks of the year, we flog you to death,” he said.

“If we all accept that the health of our people, the energy of our people is the most important asset—it is the most important driver of individual team and organizational performance,” he continued “my question to every CEO, every leader out there is, Why is health not a strategic priority in your organization?”

For more Quartz at Work (from home) workshops, visit our library of video playbacks and recaps.

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