How to safeguard mental health in a prolonged crisis

'Being human' is more important now than ever

How to safeguard mental health in a prolonged crisis

With no end in sight for the pandemic, how can leaders help employees safeguard their mental health?

Leaders should empower employees to feel like they can move forward through their own efforts, said Dr. Zoë Fortune, CEO at City Mental Health Alliance Hong Kong.

While formal policies and strategies need to be in place to support staff, she explained that it’s more important to practise human-centric leadership.

“It’s really great to hear that the topic of mental health and well-being have actually really come to the fore,” said Dr Fortune.

This means things like building resilience, showcasing empathy and vulnerability have become central to leadership.

READ MORE: Leadership compassion gaprevealed amid crisis

The experienced researcher has spent over 15 years evaluating and discussing issues around mental health in both academic and commercial sectors. She’s also an instructor in mental health first aid and has a background in psychology.

Speaking at the recent HR Leaders Asia virtual event, she said maintaining well-being is integral to everything that we do. Quoting the World Health Organisation (WHO), she added “that there is no health without mental health”.

The pandemic has shown just how critical mental health issues can be. The WHO pointed out that while it may be worse for individuals who have existing conditions, it can be just as bad for previously ‘healthy’ folk.

READ MORE: WHO: 'Urgent need' to tackle mental health crisis

“There has been so much change, it’s been unsettling for many,” said Dr Fortune. “It’s been a very different experience throughout this whole COVID-19 process, and many people have [reacted] differently. Some people have had challenges in different ways.

“And I think it’s really important to understand that everyone’s experience is a little bit different.”

For instance, some people have been isolated, while some have been at home trying to homeschool their five kids and work at the same time. Acknowledging the varied experiences is a vital first step to help people manage their circumstances, she said.

Embed change at all levels
Also, to successfully help employees maintain their well-being throughout the crisis, she believes that it has to be a ‘whole organisation’ effort. While it’s true that leadership has to uphold their duty of care to staff, she reminded that all employees have “a role and responsibility at every level of an organisation”.

“We need to truly embed change,” she said. “They could be a leader, HR, or a junior staff. If we’re going to create change across the organisation, then we need to empower people at every level of the organisation. It’s about giving them the confidence and ability to do it.”

READ MORE: Mental wellness: why C-suite should lead the discussion

Leading from the top does remain a priority, however, and seniors need to be conscious of employees’ challenges as well as their different needs.

“In terms of vulnerability, it’s about being open to questions [and] being able to communicate externally about what’s going on,” she said.

“But I think it’s also about the way that we provide confidence and empower staff to trust [other] staff. If anything, this experiment that the world’s been in has shown that working from home can work for a lot of people.”

While it doesn’t work for some individuals, this year has shown that you can trust staff to carry out their duties while working remotely. Providing flexibility where it allows has also empowered staff to manage their own time, she said.

“So it’s about giving people that confidence and autonomy to work in a way that’s best for them,” she said.

Hence, leaders have simply had to learn to offer policies to support staff as they sort themselves out, she said.

READ MORE: Remote work: Will it really kill productivity?

Pay attention at the ‘water cooler’
Undeniably, formal policies as well as strategies are crucial to support good mental health, she explained.

They can be made up of initiatives that have been proven to improve health: suggesting preventative measures like exercise, checking in with individuals, identifying stress points, de-stigmatising mental health, and making resources available, such as training or communication channels.

Such measures will make employees feel confident that the company supports a healthy working environment when they return to offices or cope with the ‘new normal’.

But it’s also about all the seemingly minor moments — they matter just as much, said Dr Fortune.

“It’s about communication as well, checking in with others,” she said. “Not just regular meetings, we've all been zoomed out during this time, but I think it’s also about those kind of ‘water cooler moments’ — those little interpersonal interactions.

“We know that we’ve got to know people on a different level [because of the crisis]. We’ve seen inside of living rooms and kitchens, met pets and children, and all the rest of it.

“It’s about using that as a mechanism to get to know our teams and those around us better. So we know what keeps them well from a mental health perspective, and we'll know where their struggles are so that we can help support them through that as well.”

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