By Cyndee Miller
With the global death toll now over 410,000, COVID-19 is recognized as a clear and present danger to public health. But lurking just beneath the surface is another disturbing—often less visible—crisis: the damage to our mental health.
People aren’t just living with the fear that they or someone they love might get sick. They’re also dealing with extreme economic uncertainty and the prolonged isolation that comes with social distancing and working from home. And then in the past few weeks, we all bore witness to the murder of George Floyd and the painful reckoning of a world trying to dismantle systemic racial injustice and inequality.
It’s a lot for the human psyche to bear—and the weight is clear: More than 40 percent of people said their mental health had deteriorated since the pandemic began, according to a global study by SAP, Qualtrics and Mind Share Partners in April. And 66 percent reported higher stress levels since the outbreak.
Many project leaders would count themselves among that group at least part of the time. I know I do. It’s just the reality of our current situation—and acknowledging our struggles with mental health (hopefully) lessens what is still too often seen as a stigma, especially in the United States.
No matter how you’re feeling, part of being a good leader is recognizing what your team is going through. Yet the survey found less than half (47 percent) of people say their manager is tuned in to their well-being.
It takes empathy, emotional intelligence and active listening—none of which are especially new, of course. But they’re fast emerging as power skills for project leaders. With so many teams dispersed and working virtually these days, there’s been “a lot more talk and a lot more understanding around things like well-being and mental health,” PM Network® columnist Lindsay Scott recently told Projectified™.
Even before the pandemic hit, Scott remarked in an earlier episode of Projectified™ that she was seeing an increased focus on “pastoral care of teams” in the U.K., where she’s director of recruiting firm Arras People. “As a project manager, it is up to you to be making sure that your team is not under undue stress or under stress for long periods of time.”
Showing you care doesn’t just generate warm fuzzies—it can reduce business risk. In the study mentioned above, those respondents who said their manager isn’t attuned to their well-being were 61 percent more likely to say they’ve been less productive since the coronavirus outbreak.
Forward-looking companies are taking action to increase access to care. Consulting giant EY has been using employee feedback to steadily expand mental health services since launching its We Care program in 2016. The goal is to better equip HR professionals and managers to identify and respond to subtle changes in behavior, like a decline in job performance, which can indicate poor mental health. As part of a recent project that targets impaired sleep, for example, EY created a digital sleep assessment and enhancement tool. Employees who score high for disrupted sleep are invited to participate in a customized, digital cognitive behavioral therapy program.
Since EY launched We Care, employee use of the company’s internal mental health support team has risen more than 100 percent. “That’s a reflection that our people are getting care and getting it early,” EY Assist director Michael Weiner told PM Network®.
PMI President and CEO Sunil Prashara suggested ways to cope with loneliness and stress as project leaders work remotely on The Official PMI Blog. Be good to yourself in simple ways, he says, such as “eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and going outside for some fresh air.”
Another piece of advice: Stay connected—but not too connected. Technology can be both a gift and a curse, Prashara writes. “While social media allows us to share news and keep friends and family close, it can also create needless anxiety by amplifying misinformation and negative rumors. My advice is to consume social media sparingly and thoughtfully.”
What strategies are you using to stay informed about your team’s mental health and help those who are struggling? And most importantly: How are you doing? Let me know in the comments.