How can I help with my team's mental health challenges when I'm struggling with my own?
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Being a leader during the pandemic seems like a no-win battle ⚔️🛡️. CoVid has made life tough for everyone; whether affecting health, wealth, or happiness. As a leader, in times like this, it's figuratively our job to carry our team on our shoulders out to safety. Helping and protecting our team from the chaos outside the door. But who's helping and protecting us? How can we carry anyone if we feel like waving the white flag 🏳️ ourselves?
Where to start?
In the past years I had one-off skirmishes with anxiety & stress. Headaches or a momentary pain in the chest. Until CoVid I had no idea what caused it. I certainly know now. Last spring my emotional perfect storm struck. A new baby (thank G-d 🙏), job stability got rocky, and oh yea CoVid overwhelmed the world.
The world ending, my family's health, and [fill in blank] caused those sporadic physical symptoms of anxiety to become a constant for weeks or months. Especially during the 3 lockdowns here in 🇮🇱. I've been #wfh for 9 years now. So CoVid didn't change that. What changed was the lack of separation. I had order in the universe. Being a 9 hour block of mostly uninterrupted time for work and creativity. uninterrupted creative work time. My time for me. To get work done, get a workout in, mentor others, etc. Then I switched to family time. Playing with the kids, dinners, bath time, PJs, & bedtime stories. With the lockdowns, that orderly separation collapsed. It morphed into a 16 hour block of highly interrupted time. Doing some work, turning on iPads for my kids' zoom lessons, start a home work out but get interrupted for some tech support. Try to create some content, but stop to help with bath time.
The above story may sound familiar, and it very likely does. People on my team, friends, and founders I've been mentoring have had similar or identical stories. Sounds like we were all falling apart. However, as a leader I needed & still need to stand up during the chaos and support my team. I can't say I've done a great job at it, but I know I'm trying my best.
Here are a few things I've done to help myself, so I can help others
The best place to start is to simply start talking. Talk to your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues, or a mental health professional. Next, try reversing any negative habits you've picked up during the pandemic. During the 1st pandemic, I literally didn't leave the house at all except for a once a week 10 minute walk. I went stir-crazy and knew this was a major contributing factor to my stress. I now go for a daily 5k run or walk. Fresh air and sunshine can do wonders. Next, I started meditating. This one has been a bit hit or miss for me. I've tried lots of apps like Headspace and Calm. Some weeks I can do 6 days straight of 20 minute sessions. Other weeks, I'm happy to get in one 10 minute session. I do notice that however much I get, the few minutes of calm and quiet are helpful. Finally I share. Whether via my podcast on remote leadership, or posts like this. Every avenue to get things out has been helpful. Finally finally, I started a small whatsapp/zoom group of other leaders. We meet bi-weekly to connect, chat, & support each other. Whether sharing meditation ideas, or how to help solve a situation that came up in one of the leader's teams.
Here is what I've done with the teams and companies I've worked with & mentored over the past year.
Most importantly I've tried creating an environment of openness. It's definitely a work in progress, but it starts with you the leader. I started talking and being honest. I spoke about how difficult it was for me to concentrate when my kids were bouncing off the walls locked up in the house. I spoke about the few anxiety attacks I had. I spoke about the ongoings pains in my shoulder, chest, & back. I just opened up. I'm a big believer in the power and impact of a leader leading from the front. I hoped if I shared what was going on with me, it would give comfort to others facing similar. It would also empower others to share their stories. Understanding what I was trying to do was build a forum where one could feel comfortable being honest. Whether in a slack channel, in team meetings, or 1:1s. The forum is less important vs just doing it. Start sharing and start building a comfortable environment your team will be open within.
I started checking in with direct reports, colleagues, mentees, and anyone in between at least once a week. Most of the time via 5-10 chit chat video call. Video is the closest to IRL interactions. So you have the opportunity to see someone's face, reactions, & body language. Those tell a lot about how a person is doing.
I've tried to pay close attention to changes in engagement. Two cases jumped out at me. The first, someone who everyday posted a funny Gif or meme. A bit of ☀️ in the darkness. Those daily posts turned into 3x a week to 1x a week to less. The decrease in daily fun was a 🚩. I started checking in with this person almost daily. The second case, of someone normally highly engaged and vocal during team meetings stopped talking. Again, after 2-3 meetings I started doing those almost daily checkins.
With a few teams I work with, we implemented a mental health day. Each employee is required to take at least one day off every month for their mental health. Unlike other time-off that may require pre-approval, these don't. If someone wants to schedule a day, that's great. If someone last minute needs the day off, that's great too.
I've also helped a few companies require each employee to take off one full week every quarter during the year. Like the mental health day, each leader is required to track these and ensure they are utilized. No long weekends. No 2-3 days here and there. Most startups have 'unlimited vacation' so the long weekend/few days off is great. Book them. Yet, everyone must have a full week that they're disconnected from work. Delete work apps from the phone, it's prohibited to send emails, etc.
With almost every team I've worked with, we added in a 20-30 minute weekly team fun meeting. This block of time is all about team building and fostering engagement with your team. Across all the teams, we've tried lots of fun things. Whiteboard Pictionary (I'm the best at this 🏆), book clubs 📚, costume parties with our families, Netflix watch parties, & more. You can do anything fun with your team. Just make sure it's over video, it's engaging, and nothing to do with work.
Offer access to mental health professionals. Whether the company purchases a company plan for an app that offers tele-mental-health sessions or reimburses for sessions.
If you're a leader struggling with your own mental health or supporting your team's, you can do it. We're a team, so don't hesitate to reach out. I'm here to be helpful!
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