Mindfulness: How to lead through a global crisis

2020 has been a trying year for us all, but for employees already struggling with mental wellbeing it has been harrowing

Mindfulness: How to lead through a global crisis

2020 has been a trying year for us all, but for employees already struggling with mental wellbeing it has been harrowing. As we start to emerge form the global COVID-19 pandemic, and return to something akin to normality, leaders everywhere should be looking to protect their people’s mental health.

HRD spoke to Dr. Geoff Soloway, founder and Chief Training Officer at MindWell-U, a health tech firm that delivers research-backed e-mental health tools that are shown to increase resilience, lower stress and improve performance. He revealed how HR can go the extra mile to guide, protect, and encourage employee mindfulness.

HRD: Can you tell me more about MindWell-U and its role in Wellness Together Canada?

GS: MindWell-U is a mental wellbeing and training platform developed for organizations to help ensure employees show up mindful and fit for duty in whatever role we are taking on.  MindWell delivers evidence-based mental health tools and training that are shown to increase resilience, psychological health and safety, decrease stress and enhance performance.  MindWell transforms how people, teams and organizations experience their everyday, and how to elevate in today's rapidly changing world.  

MindWell’s mission is to enhance mental health and wellbeing globally by making mindfulness-in-action, more relevant and accessible for all, and has already trained over 60,000 employees in diverse organizations including corporate, industrial and utilities, healthcare and education.

In response to the global public health challenge created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Canada launched the Wellness Together Canada platform and selected MindWell’s training as one of its available resources.  MindWell is honoured to be included in this national mental health platform and help support Canadians reduce stress, increase resilience and wellbeing. Never before has it been more important for all Canadians to be introduced to Take 5, MindWell’s core mindfulness-in-action practice.

HRD: Why is mental wellbeing so critical in times of global crisis?

GS: In a policy brief from the United Nations in May 2020, the World Health Organization raised the level of concern and need for action in support of our mental wellbeing to avoid a mental health crisis. “The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by [the COVID-19] crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently,” they expressed.

Mental wellbeing serves as a foundation for our resilience and our ability to process and respond skillfully to the constant changes we face during a global crisis. We have all been disrupted and distressed during this time - it will be positive mental health that supports our recovery and adaptation to new ways of living for individuals, communities and societies as a whole

We have experienced and are living through a mental injury that is not so different from a physical injury. Mental wellbeing provides us with clarity, discernment, and insight into actions and behaviours to best serve our next steps in recovery. Just like a physical injury, the extent and impact of the injury and our healing will be determined by how we care for ourselves. Having the mental wellbeing, knowledge and resources to care for ourselves and others will be critical as we move forward.

A recent study conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and The Conference Board of Canada reported that 84% of respondents indicated their mental health concerns had worsened since the onset of COVID-19.

HRD: How can we maintain mental wellbeing during a global crisis?
While there were several coping strategies that had positive effects, including exercise and connecting with family and friends, mindfulness was the only coping strategy to have a positive impact across all 15 areas of mental health concern areas studied. This finding doesn’t surprise MindWell of course!

Mindfulness benefits people in many ways. Perhaps most importantly during these challenging times, it helps build resilience and develops the skills needed to respond more easily to constant change and uncertainty. With no expected end to the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to constant change and uncertainty will continue to be a strength critical to mental wellbeing.

HRD: Tell me more about mindfulness and its role in employee wellbeing?

GS: Mindfulness is a new type of literacy in the 21st century. Similar to reading and writing, this core competence in the workplace is a cognitive capacity that has functional and structural imprints on the brain. We all have the capacity for being mindful, and to grow that capacity. The brain changes as we activate different areas of the brain when we are mindful such as the pre-frontal cortex, the area associated with executive functions such as self-control, working memory, and problem solving. Executive functions make up a large percentage of daily work life, enabling employees to create and stay focused on tasks and a plan, inhibit inappropriate behaviour and solve problems and navigate change skillfully when it arises.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia completed a study with employees across multiple workplaces and found employees who learned mindfulness via MindWell’s online training program, the MindWell Challenge, found significant increases in measures of mindfulness, emotion regulation, engagement, resilience, workplace thriving as well as significant decrease in stress, burnout and interpersonal deviant behaviours.

Beyond the benefits to an individual, workplace mindfulness training is a practical, accessible, and cost-effective solution that can impact a business on the leadership and organizational levels as well.

Mindful leaders can regulate their emotions during times of high stress and are more capable of sharing their own vulnerability, fostering openness and support within their organizations. They are strong listeners and are able to respond with compassion to their people.

At the organizational level, mindfulness training has impacts across all levels – from the front lines to executives. Organizations adopt a new and a new way of working emerges. Leaders and HR professionals integrate mindfulness when developing organizational policies, procedures and culture.

Protocols enacted to nurture a mindful organization correlate with developing a psychologically safe and healthy workplace – for example, no emailing after work hours or starting meetings with a short mindfulness practice to ensure everyone is fully present in-person and online.

Mindfulness is no longer a nice-to-have, but rather a need-to-have for workplaces that want to help their teams and leaders respond skillfully to the looming mental health crisis.

HRD: What can employers do now to safeguard employee mental wellbeing on the return to work?

GS: The Morneau Shepell June 2020 Mental Health Index showed a correlation between the level of mental health support an employer provides and an employee’s mental wellbeing, so it’s important for employers to recognize the important role they can play in supporting their employees during this time.

Practice clear and regular communication. Keep your employees as informed as possible about new and upcoming changes and be honest about things you don’t know yet. When people are informed about what to expect and confident that you are addressing the situation, they are better able to cope.

Acknowledge that fear, anxiety and the wide range of emotions that employees may be experiencing are normal during this time. Make sure all employees feel included and as connected as possible, whether working on site or virtually. You can leverage existing health and safety groups or wellness committees to put specific attention on staying connected with other employees virtually.

Recognize that it’s not ‘business as usual’ and work with your employees to help them meet the needs of their job with their other commitments with home and family. Checking with your employees to find out what their specific needs are will provide them with some level of control, which is important during a time when so much is out of our control!

Be proactive. Remind employees about existing supports and resources and implement new ones to promote positive coping and build resilience. Mindfulness training is a cost-effective solution that can be implemented with little effort that is effective across an organization from the front lines to executives. 

Encourage managers and those in leadership roles to model positive coping behaviours. Help ensure they are keeping boundaries between work and home life, even when working from home and taking time off when needed. This will ensure managers maintain their own mental wellbeing as well show their teams the importance of rest and regular time off.

Don’t forget about acknowledgement and recognition during this time! Adapting to a new work situation can be difficult for many people. Thanking your employees for their efforts will go a long way. Keep in mind you may need to find new ways to provide recognition as work dynamics change and more teams embrace remote work.

HRD: What are employers’ main concerns on employee wellbeing right now amidst COVID-19?

GS: COVID-19 disrupted our normal, leaving us with a heightened level of uncertainty for what is to come. This underlying level of uncertainty is a major trigger of stress and anxiety for a society that was already demonstrating rising concern of mental health and illness. There’s no question- we are not at our best from a mental health perspective. Those who were already at risk of more complex mental health concerns are further down the continuum and more likely to show up as increasing incidence of distress, disability, presenteeism, conflict and poor leadership within an organization.

Employers’ main concerns need to be focused on enabling employees to learn and practice the skills of mental health so they can face whatever comes next. Employers can get in front of the looming mental health crisis by incorporating and supporting employee mental wellbeing right now vs. waiting for more crisis moments to emerge and then trying to respond with a band-aid solution. There are many contributing factors to mental wellbeing including sleep, nutrition and exercise, and mindfulness is like the hub which keeps all the spokes of the wheel together. Prioritizing and supporting employees and organizational culture to redevelop and re-envision new daily routines is central to building the mental fitness we need to elevate in the midst of COVID-19 and beyond.   

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