Helping Business Teams With Mental Health Issues During COVID-19

How do you lead and inspire employees amid a global pandemic that’s creating anxiety and uncertainty everywhere? This is the most unusual and unpredictable crisis most of us have experienced in our lives. But there’s no need to start from scratch in trying to confront it.

In times of crisis, there are two directions human nature can take us: fear, helplessness and victimization — or self-actualization and engagement. On the latter, if leaders have a clear way forward, human beings are amazingly resilient. There is a documented “rally effect.”

Gallup polling has found four universal needs that followers have of leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. These needs are especially urgent during crises. People look for these traits in their leaders as a signal that their life will be OK and that they can be part of the solution. But how can a business leader fulfill those four needs?

Cheril Clarke of has written quite a bit about how business leaders should be addressing their employees during this COVID-19 outbreak. Her most recent piece, entitled, Mental Health Will Be the Next Pandemic – How Business Leaders Can Help, points out that the way leaders treat employees now will heavily influence their company’s fate when it all ends. Cheril says that the main message business leaders need to convey to their employees to help soothe their stress levels is: 

“Things will get better. Even though the economy is now contracting, at some point, it will expand again. In the meantime, we are here for you. Retaining employees and supporting them during this difficult time is our top priority. After all, there is no business without people. COVID-19 may have caught us off guard, but we are dedicating every resource at our disposal to respond to this unexpected challenge.”

Set expectations early and clearly. About half of all U.S. employees — remote or not — don’t know what’s expected of them at work. And a current poll shows that only 39% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19. That’s a bad beginning, and it’ll get worse for employees sent home without good guidance. 

The supervisor or manager is the key conduit, responsible for translating the organization’s response to COVID-19 for each employee. Only the direct manager can know each employee’s situation, keep them informed, and adjust expectations, coaching and accountability to inspire high performance. However, less than half of employees (48%) strongly agree that their immediate supervisor keeps them informed about what is going on in the organization as it relates to the impact of COVID-19.

Managers must make expectations crystal clear. A Gallup meta-analysis has found that during high-stress times, managers need to go back to the basics of clarifying expectations, reviewing material and equipment needs, and readjusting roles so that people can leverage their strengths in new ways. Further, each employee needs to see how they fit into the bigger picture of the organization — its mission and purpose. Executives should provide higher-level expectations aligned with the company’s purpose: We’ll keep our customers engaged by doing X, we’ll maintain our standards by doing Y, we’ll fulfill our mission by doing Z. The more detail, the better. 

Employees who are accustomed to working in-house may feel cut off from the resources, information or relationships they need to do their jobs well, so plan for more conference calls. It’s OK to pad socializing into the timeframe; indeed, it may be vital for people who need lots of interaction to keep their energy up. Managers will have to be diligent about communicating productively — coaching high performance requires frequent conversations, and there won’t be chance conversations in the hall.

But your staff needs to hear from executives too, especially as economic fears worsen, to maintain their trust in leadership. Keep the lines of communication open, honest and broad. Send emails or post videos about your reasoning, intentions and expectations. Make it easy for managers to know your thoughts and contribute their own.

Before the novel coronavirus outbreak, work and life were more blended than ever before. Now, with millions of people required to work from home and with millions of kids kept home from school, blending work and life is even more complicated — and it’s creating all kinds of unprecedented stress on employees’ wellbeing.

A key predictor of low worry and high confidence is whether each employee believes, and experiences, that the organization is looking out for their best interest. Gallup has found five elements of wellbeing that each organization can act on in many different ways: career, social, financial, community and physical. When asked to consider the recent impact of COVID-19, less than half of employees (45%) strongly agree that their organization cares about their overall wellbeing. Only just over half of employees (54%) strongly agree that, considering the recent impact of COVID-19 on their job, they feel well-prepared to do their work. We are all adapting to this massive disruption.