3 ways to support your team's mental health during the coronavirus

COVID-19 and the associated quarantine are challenging not only how we work, but our mental states as well. Here's how to help your staff cope.

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Image: artbesouro, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Leadership is never easy, and in times of crisis that becomes even more clear. Perhaps the biggest challenge of leading during a crisis is that there are so many challenges to address, each seemingly the most important in a sea of high priorities. 

One of the challenges that's often allowed to fall by the wayside--and is especially important during the COVID-19 quarantine--is looking after your team's mental health. While that may cause an inadvertent eye roll, as individual leaders we are likely the closest point of contact for many of our team members during this time and, whether we like it or not, will be regarded as everything from taskmaster, to HR representative, to trusted confidant, to amateur psychologist.

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It's probably well in your wheelhouse to worry about whether your team members have the right technology and tools, or whether they are tracking against their project plan, but their mental state may feel like an uncomfortable domain. However, an individual's mental well-being has an obvious effect on their work, as well as their life as a whole. 

While many aspects of mental health are the domain of professionals, like it or not, as leaders who have routine contact with our teams, and in many cases are the only regular, work-related contact, we're now on the front lines and have a duty to look after our team members' mental health. Here are some easy tips to promote your team's mental well-being.

Mix shared experience with empathy

Some leaders I've spoken to have tried to maintain a stoic front and carry on with work as though nothing has changed. While sticking to certain routines and formalities may bring some personal comfort, it's obvious that we're no longer operating in business as usual. Acknowledging this new reality and the challenges that come along with it shows some vulnerability and humanity, and acknowledges to your team that this is a complex mixture of difficulty, humor, trial, and error.

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In particular, laugh at yourself and acknowledge the dog or child walking in on your videoconference, or the grave decision-making process behind when to swap pajamas for your work clothes, which in my case has descended into a clean workout shirt (thank goodness for the athleisure trend). Sharing your own challenges lets your team know we're struggling to adapt and in this together. If you're up to it, acknowledge your own mental challenges. For example, it seemed my entire family hit a slump around week three of quarantine, and in talking with my team members, many had the same experience around week three or four, and it was a collective relief that this was not a one-off experience.

Temper your sharing with some empathy and understanding for your team member's situation. I'm lucky enough to have a home with a dedicated office space, so while I can have a shared laugh with my team about my 4-year-old's occasional guest appearances in my videoconferences, it's probably best that I don't discuss my frequent office reconfigurations with someone who is working on their kitchen table with two roommates in a small Manhattan apartment.

Create some fun in your meetings

One of the big items many of us miss from physically working together is the informal camaraderie of the office. It's an imperfect replacement, but creating a light shared experience of some sort can return some of that bonding and bring some laughter into virtual work. One of my teams has an informal competition going for best Zoom background, and what started off with the default animated beach has turned into all manner of creative, customized backgrounds.

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I've heard of other teams having puzzle competitions where they share daily photos of their progress on elaborate jigsaw puzzles, LEGO buildings, or knitting projects. These can be simple or elaborate, and if you're personally loathe to engage in these types of activities, find the "party starter" on your team and ask them to take the reins. Your team is likely following your example, and sometimes all it takes is some implicit permission to have a little fun and lighten the mood.

You may also want to add a mental health component to some friendly competition. This could be an informal meditation contest to see who can use one of the myriad mindfulness apps to meditate for a couple minutes each day, to a walking challenge in which each team member tries to reach their step goal for the week. Keep it light, fun, and optional so you don't create additional stress by giving the perception of "mandatory fun."

Let your team know there's help available

Reach out to your HR colleagues to find out what resources your company has available to support mental health. These could range from benefits that are already built into your health plan, to dedicated support lines specific to COVID-19. In most cases I'm surprised how many benefits my company, and clients I work with, already have established. Your HR team may already have a "one pager" with all the resources and how to engage them, or if it doesn't, some gentle encouragement or offers of assistance may help. Ideally, you'll sample the resources and not only share with your team that they're available, but that you've personally used them, subtly acknowledging that it's perfectly acceptable to call in the pros when needed.

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