Part I: “We’re In This Together: Mental Health In The Workplace”

Carolyn Maue and Alyson Lyon

The Maue Center

Alyson Lyon, my Maue Center colleague and President of Higher View Coaching, and I recently presented a webinar to FPRA Volusia/Flagler Chapter on “Leading Through Covid 19” as part of their wonderful and informative series. Together we explored the current state of mental health in the workplace right now and identified action steps leaders could take.

Carolyn: Alyson, why now? What is important about helping organizations stay healthy and addressing mental health in the workplace right now?

Alyson: At a time like this, the organization’s role is to meet people where they are. It might seem like we are all going through the same “storm,” but we are in different boats, and everyone’s circumstances are different.  People need us to remind them that we’re all in this together. As COVID-19 was spreading worldwide, no one could predict the rate of infection, the number of lives we would lose, the impact on the economy, or the long-range detrimental effect on our mental health and well-being.  While we focused on mitigating the spread of the virus, starting with the lockdown and social distancing, another epidemic was taking hold: an epidemic of mental health challenges and declining well-being.

Carolyn: What are some of the conditions in the workplace right now regarding mental health that you think are most important?

Alyson: With US adults reporting their highest stress levels and burnout since the beginning of the pandemic, it is essential to raise the red flag to make mental health and well-being a priority. COVID-19 is having an extraordinary impact on people. Current research shows 88% of people with depressive symptoms (3 times higher than pre-pandemic) and 89% report a decline in workplace well-being. We know that mental health impacts the level of productivity, level of interest or engagement, the ability to concentrate, and the ability to communicate effectively with co-workers. In general, leaders are not equipped with the resources or knowledge of how to handle employee mental health challenges and declining well-being at this magnitude.

Carolyn: What role does burnout play in mental health in the workplace?

Alyson: Recently, the Harvard Business Review published a series of articles on burnout based on the research of Jennifer Moss, Christina Maslach, Susan Jackson, and Michael Leiter. (please see link below. Their research revealed that burnout is a global problem, intensifying overwhelmed and exhausted workers’ mental health challenges. Long before the pandemic, workers were already experiencing high burnout levels caused by several issues, i.e., unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, and insufficient rewards for effort. In 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as ” a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from workplace stress that not been successfully managed.” They described it as a problem that needs resolving at the organizational level, beginning with acknowledging that people cannot keep working at unsustainable levels.

At the onset of the pandemic, burnout was fueled by increased workloads, people feeling overextended and general feelings of unfairness or perceived loss of control.  By the fall of 2020, 89% of their respondents reported their work-life was getting worse, and 62% of respondents who were struggling to manage their workloads experience burnout “often” or “extremely often.”

Carolyn: I’d like you to describe resilience and why is it important in relation to mental health and burnout. But first, I have a story!  One of my clients had Covid19, and it swept through her family. Everyone came out of it okay, but by the time she returned to work a month later, two of her staff had left their roles: one due to a serious depression, and the other left to take a less stressful job. It was like a tsunami for her; she could barely keep her head above water. And she continued to be so concerned about her staff and their well-being, even when she herself was not well. I was able to help her step back and concentrate on how she could build her own resilience through self- care, support her team members in doing the same, and having conversations with them about how they could counter-balance the stress with activities that both replenished their energy and prepared them for the ongoing stress.

Alyson:  Resilience is our capacity to overcome, recover and adapt to challenging situations. It is the quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever.  Becoming more resilient not only helps us get through difficult circumstances it also empowers us to grow and improve our life along the way.   Resilience is a source of great hope for many people. When we seek out and offer empathetic support to others by staying connected, we remind people we are all in this together. Like your client who had Covid 19, her resilience was necessary to stay the course, and with a collective resilience, she and her team continue to move forward.

Our capacity for resilience increases through self-care, staying connected to others, learning from the past, and seeking professional help when we have difficulty making progress. With proper amounts of sleep, nutrition, and regular exercise, we strengthen our body to adapt to stress and protect us from mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, and the stress related to unsustainable workloads and hardship. Resilience lowers burnout.

Carolyn: This is a lot for leaders to manage in addition to the challenges of getting work done and adapting to the new realities of the pandemic. What are some things individual leaders can do right now?

Alyson: One of the challenges with mental health issues in a workplace is sometimes when we see that people are struggling, we just don’t know what to do. A leader’s support makes a difference. Leaders can really be effective by staying connected with co-workers, providing a sense of inclusion, psychological safety, and normalizing what is going on. Leaders can extend empathetic support and keep checking in with people by asking them how they are, how working from home is going, and just providing an opportunity to talk. Finally, leaders will make a difference by role modeling resilience and self-care.

Carolyn: Creating time for people, taking the time to be kind and sensitive, and asking people how they’re doing are so important. In Part II we’ll discuss the steps leaders can take with teams and in organizations to reduce the negative effects of mental health and burn-out, so stay tuned. Here is the link to the HBR articles:

Read article here.