Leadership guide to supporting your team's mental health


Your Leadership Guide to Team Mental Health During COVID-19

Facing multiple, extraordinary stressors is a major challenge for our society’s collective mental health. As you can imagine, employees and their families are more stressed than ever but they may be less likely to seek out the help they need due to COVID-related job insecurity.

If your employees are working with the public,that can cause anxiety and fear, especially if customers are panicked. Be particularly empathetic with these heroes right now. Service jobs like cashiers, custodians, customer service, pharmacists, and nurses don’t get enough credit - and they are the ones keeping our world running right now. Let them know that you see that and understand that working with the public is daunting right now.

If your employees are working from home, focus on your human resources more than the work itself. First and foremost, your staff are people. Let your team know you see the struggles and understand things will be difficult for everyone. Remember that some employees working from home will struggle with the isolation, which can lead to – or exacerbate – depression.

If your employees are coming back to the office, they may be feeling anxious and uncertain about their safety, struggling to adapt to being around others after being isolated or some may be experiencing relief after a tough time at home. Patience, empathy and flexibility will help you make your team feel more comfortable during this transition and encourage them to speak up if needed.

Whether your staff are working from home or on the front lines, we need to assume mental health issues existon our teamsand provide open and supportive leadership that makes it okay to ask for help.

What we’re seeing in our clients

There has been a significant increase in usage of our program since the pandemic began, with anxiety and relationships being the top reasons members reach out for counselling support.

We are also seeing increasing in substance use, both the frequency of use and the volume being consumed. This often occurs in tandem with other mental health challenges, as it can be used as a numbing strategy.

The biggest concern with anxiety, depression, substance use, etc. is that when they become prolonged over an extended period they typically become more complex and can lead to disability claims. This is where proactive mental health support is key to helping people get treatment before their issues become severe.

Appearances can be deceiving ...

Not everyone who seems well, is actually well, especially when jobs are at risk in our economy and no one wants to be seen as weak or expendable.  High-functioning anxiety and high-functioning depression often presents as overachieving, diligence, and high-performance, which is rewarded in our society and in the workforce. 

The problem is when these people are “performing” wellness all day, and then go home and essentially crash. Some many use or abuse substances like drugs and alcohol to cope. This is obviously not healthy, and can lead to burnout and other health issues. In severe cases, there is suicide risk.

Common red flags to watch out for:

  • Sudden changes in personality or behaviour

  • Increased sick days, tardiness, or absenteeism 

  • Difficulty meeting deadlines

  • Trouble concentrating or staying on-task

  • Making more frequent mistakes

  • A decline in personal hygiene or appearance

Remember: don’t make assumptions!Many of these changes could be indicative of other things, but if you notice these changes in a team member or another leader, chances are something is up and it’s worth starting a conversation about.

Creating psychological safety

A psychologically safe workplace is one where teammates feel secure enough in their employment, one another and leadership to be able to be honest and disclose their struggles when they need help. When leaders openly discuss issues surrounding mental health and wellness, this gives staff permission to bring up issues when needed and seek help when necessary. So how do we talk about it?

  • Be mindfulof time and place- Privacy is key – it is not uncommon for those who are struggling to feel shame about needing or wanting support, so it’s important for them to feel safe. Make this conversation a one-on-one, as “intervention” style approaches can be overwhelming and embarrassing. 

  • Empathize and show support- Introduce the topic gently and acknowledge that talking openly about this can be daunting. E.g.)I noticed you’ve been acting differently lately – it seems like you’re going through something and I’m worried about you. How have you been doing?” Don’t worry about being perfect. The attempt is more important than technique.

  • Useactive listening skills- Listening to listen, not to talk; allow them to share their story at their own pace and to whatever level of detail they feel comfortable, Use open-ended questions to encourage conversation.

Ongoing ways to boost your team’s mental health:

  • Create virtual social opportunities - Set up video lunches, virtual escape rooms or cooking lesson dinner parties and more focused on connecting socially.

  • Be flexible - We’re all trying to find a new rhythm in this bizarre reality. Particularly for your staff with kids at home, understand that their hours may fluctuate irregularly and that they may be often interrupted during video calls. Trust that they’re doing their best and make the best of the situation. 

  • Make a conscious effort to check in with your staff on a regular basis. - This isn’t hard to do - send a quick email or Slack message and ask them how they’re doing. Encourage honest answers. If you don’t know how to respond, something like, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m sorry that you’re feeling this way. Life is really hard right now, but we will get through it,” is a good start. 

Key takeaways:

  • Assume that people will need help, and put the resources in place.  Be aware of the benefits you have available and how to access them so you can share them with your team. If you haven’t tried them out yourself, now’s the time! This helps you ensure the programs are working and will provide a positive user experience for your team. Ensure your team has current info on how to access the program and the scope of care available to them. 

  • Be an aware leader - be familiar with your duty to ask & accommodate. If you suspect an employee is at risk, you are obliged to ask and do all you can to help.

  • Actively fight the stigma surrounding mental health. Create a psychologically safe environment where leaders openly prioritize & support mental health as an intrinsic part of overall employee health and wellness.

Finally, before you can take care of others, you need to take care of yourself. 

Your ability to lead others successfully necessitates that you continuously meet your own needs. The true mark of a good leader isn’t a title or a CV, it’s the ability to set an example. Successful leadership is successful modelling, so make sure you walk the walk and ask for what you need.

Learn more about our programs and services for employers here.


Additional information on COVID & mental health: