High anxiety: Supporting your team’s mental health

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By Dan Wyant

Nearly 25% of Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression, which is three times higher than pre-pandemic numbers, according to a study published recently in JAMA Network Open, a journal from the American Medical Association. I’m not surprised, as several of my own colleagues, friends and family members have experienced anxiety attacks in the past few months.

This year has been characterized by great uncertainty. We entered 2020 with civil unrest, racial tension and political divisiveness. Factor in the pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, and anxiety only intensifies. People are concerned about losing their jobs, seeing their businesses fail and trying to homeschool their children. Even for those lucky enough to have less personal and professional turmoil, we still miss our normal routines. Granted, going to the gym or meeting friends at our favorite coffee shop may seem trivial losses in comparison, but still impact our mental well-being.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol discuss what managers can do to support their employees’ mental health. Below are five points that hit home for me:

1. Be vulnerable. Leaders may hesitate to drop their guard; however, sharing something personal is the first step to developing a level of trust. In the last few months, I’ve tried to be candid about my anxiety with our staff, which I think has helped them open up about their own issues. An unexpected bonus, being transparent about my fears has made me feel calmer

2. Model healthy behaviors. This is another win-win for leaders. By modeling healthy behaviors, you’re encouraging employees to do likewise — and you’re taking care of yourself. Three things I’m trying to do: exercise daily, have a routine and maintain a sense of humor. When at the foundation’s headquarters near Cassopolis, I try to join others for lunch in our cafetorium (albeit we social distance by sitting at separate tables), and we go for a walk afterward. I maintain a consistent sleep schedule. As far as humor goes, I try transform irritation into a more positive perspective.

For example, I recently had to go to the dentist’s office. My wife, who was headed out the door, looked at me and said, “You’re not going to wear that shirt, are you?” Albeit a bit miffed, I dutifully changed my shirt — and I took a selfie and sent it to Kathy. At the dentist’s office, I asked the receptionist, “So, what do you think of this shirt?” She gave it a thumb-ups, and I texted this update to Kathy. Later on, someone else gave me an unsolicited complement, and I texted Kathy again about the increasing popularity of my shirt. By the end of the day it had become a funny story.

3. Build a culture of connection through check-ins. I really like this bucket because it alludes to the art of inquiry, which is something our foundation encourages. This isn’t about asking rhetorical questions, but ones that draw others into the conversation; then really listen to their answers instead of thinking about what you’ll say next.

4. Offer flexibility. Recognize that people will have different needs at different times. Since the onset of the pandemic, the foundation has offered staff members greater flexibility to manage their personal situations and try to establish work-life balance. People who are able to work from home — and want to — are free to telecommute as much as they like. Other individuals prefer to be in the office, and we’ve established protocols so they can do so safely. I’ve come to the opinion that we’ll continue to offer such flexibility even when the pandemic ends. It’s a matter of delegation and trust. If you have right people, they aren’t going to take advantage of flexibility; instead, they’ll be more engaged, productive, satisfied and balanced.

5. Overcommunicate. Research has shown that employees who feel their managers aren’t good at communicating were 23% more likely to suffer a decline in mental health. To prevent that, we’re doing several things to increase the flow of information:

  • Our senior management team meets weekly instead of biweekly.
  • I talk with some direct reports daily instead of weekly, and I sit in on department meetings that I didn’t use to.
  • During the lockdown I began doing weekly videos to keep everyone in the organization on top of what was happening. Since we’ve reopened headquarters, I’ve continued these videos, except I now bring on a different employee each week to discuss their background and what they’re currently doing. It’s been a really fun project — and we’ve uncovered a lot of great stories!

Three other things I think are important to mention:

It’s OK to not be OK. This ties back into being vulnerable. If someone asks how you’re doing, the knee-jerk response is to say “I’m great” or “everything is fine” — even when you’re far from it. Leaders need to encourage their team members to be more transparent about problems. Admitting  you’re not OK can be the first step to addressing an important issue, instead of internalizing angst, which makes things worse.

Get professional help. This is one of my mother’s mantras, although in her case, she means interior design. She is always astonished how much money people will spend to buy a house and then not invest in the interior. Yet the same philosophy applies to mental health. A few years ago, when I was facing some stressful issues, I went to a psychologist — something I was extremely reluctant to do. My assistant kept scheduling appointments, and I kept cancelling. Finally I went, telling myself that I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just listen. Yet the psychologist asked me one question, and I ended up talking nonstop for an hour. I was shocked how great it felt.

Unpack your bag. One of the suggestions the psychologist gave me was to “unpack my bag” on a daily basis. Stuff happens, and even though irritations may not seem earth-shaking, they can accumulate. With that in mind, Kathy and I try to go for a walk each evening and share what happened during the day, both good and bad. Once I started to articulate what was bothering me, I could move on. It didn’t continue to eat away at me. It was like a miraculous release, and I’ve never slept better.

To recap, supporting mental health is important for leaders. Granted, we support physical health in the workplace and intellectual health in terms of professional development and skills training. Yet I believe mental health has been misunderstood in many organizations — which needs to change. And considering the current level of unprecedented uncertainty, we’re probably going to be dealing with greater depression and anxiety even after the pandemic. Leaders need to tune in and elevate mental health awareness as an organizational priority.

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.