Newspapers and websites around the world publish daily updates tracking the number of cases and deaths related to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s also easy to find unemployment figures, statistics on business closings, and other indicators of the economic impact it is having. What’s of no less importance but far less available is an accurate measure of the toll the pandemic is taking on our mental health.
After three months of the pandemic, The Washington Post noted that “daily doses of death, isolation and fear” were “generating widespread psychological trauma” and that experts were predicting an “historic wave” of “depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.”
In the few months since that article appeared, you can add several more factors – the punch in the gut for those who have been laid off from work, the tensions that went from simmer to boil with protests around the country, and the prolonged inability to go about life as “normal,” including limits on if or how to go about typical summer vacations.
A mid-June article by Jennifer Senior in The New York Times struck me as particularly revealing when it referenced research from England and Australia that shows “It takes longer to adapt to the pain of unemployment than to losing a loved one.”
Clearly, we can’t afford to ignore the impact all of this disruption is having on us and the people we lead. The first order of business is to take care of our personal mental health. It’s sort of like putting on your own oxygen mask in an airplane before helping someone else with theirs. Then we quickly need to transition to the parallel task of also helping others.
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The World Health Organization devotes a web page to tips and advice for dealing with the mental health challenges that have come with this crisis. It’s good stuff. And while it doesn’t put it in these terms, much of it connects to the one piece of advice I would give based largely on my experiences leading a company through a financial crisis: Be positive.
And that’s the hard part.
The WHO, for instance, recommends that we keep informed but “minimize our newsfeed.” In other words, keep up with what’s going on in the world but don’t spend too much time on it. How much is too much? How much is enough? It also suggests that we practice social distancing but maintain social connections. You know, get together with people but stay apart. Striking the right balance isn’t easy.
Other ideas are more about self-discipline, like maintaining a routine, limiting screen time, avoiding drugs and alcohol, doing things that serve other people, and just being kind.
My addition to the WHO list involves gratitude. Frankly, I find it difficult to have a positive attitude without being thankful for the blessings of life. We all can make a list of the things that are good in our life, and that simple act can have a big impact on our attitude. To take my blessing-counting a step further, I try to do at least three things:
1. Tell the people I’m closest with how much they mean to me.
I tell them verbally or write them a note, but I also want them to see it in my actions.
2. Recount the things others have told me about how I have impacted them.
It’s been said that we aren’t fully blessed until our blessings also bless others. Reminding myself of the positive impact I’ve had on others encourages me to push through when things are difficult.
3. Release the feeling that I’m in control.
I am responsible, but I’m not in control. I can’t sit on the sidelines and do nothing, but I also can’t stress over the results. Thinking and acting as if I’m in control only serves to frustrate me when things turn out differently than I planned. To release my feelings of control, I make sure I frequently touch base with Someone I believe is in full control.
The more thankful I am, the more equipped I am to fight off the fears and insecurities that lead to short-term or, worse, long-term depression. I feel inspired to exercise, to keep my routines, to give back to others in a meaningful way, and to lead with true transformative influence.
By taking care of my personal mental health, I position myself to help those around me because my mood lifts them up rather than dragging them down. The challenge when it comes to our teams, however, is that it’s harder to gauge how people are really holding up when we see and interact with them less frequently. And when we do interact, it’s often over technology like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, which limits our ability to get an accurate picture.
We have to make an extra effort to go deeper in our conversations with people, and we have to encourage, even insist, that our direct reports do the same with their direct reports so that an attitude of mental care cascades throughout our organizations. How are you doing? is a good place to start, but it can’t be the finish line. It needs to launch a conversation where we can learn the challenges people are experiencing, offer encouragement, and help ensure they are getting and feeling the support they need.
As we emerge from the physical health crisis of COVID-19 and the economy is positioned to recover, the last thing we need is a mental health pandemic that will cost us dearly over the long haul. Do your part in staying positive, and you’ll help others stay mentally healthy, as well.