I don’t need the headlines to make me lose sleep these days. I only need to look at my own feelings and those of my colleagues. As an advisor to senior executives on talent, organization and human potential, I am steeped in the people aspect of business. I feel the collective profound anxiety, exhaustion and sadness many people are struggling with right now.  

We’ve all added a huge volume of additional home and work responsibilities during COVID-19—and the wear and tear is showing. I set a mission statement for my work decades ago to help organizations to be places where people can learn, grow and be fulfilled. In addition to stressors in my own life, statistics like these (from a recent Forbes article) trigger deep feelings: 

  • More than one-third of Americans have displayed clinical signs of anxiety, depression, or both since the coronavirus pandemic began. 
  • A Pew Research Center survey earlier this month found this figure was significantly higher (55%) for those experiencing financial difficulties. 
  • Only 50% of employees are comfortable discussing mental health issues.
  • And a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that one-third of employees worry about retaliation or firing if they seek mental health care.  

I am a New Yorker. I was in the city on 9/11. While I wish every day that it never happened, it brought out the best of humanity in so many of us. This time in our history feels similar to that one for me.   

Now, like then, there are rays of light. People are more aware of mental health and wellness than they used to be, thanks to brave trailblazers who share their journeys—trailblazers like Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability. Carol bravely spoke of her own struggles with PTSD after the birth of her beautiful son with disabilities. How much I admire her bravery and willingness to disclose her own struggle and lead the way. When people like Carol use their leadership pulpit to role model healthy openness about mental wellness, it opens the door for others inside organizations to talk about mental health. 

Mental wellness has been written about again and again, so in this post I won’t focus on removing the stigma. It’s a well-known fact that talking about mental health and wellness can no longer be taboo if we want healthy people in healthy workplaces. Where I can add value is in talking about what Accenture research shows business leaders can do to help their people achieve and maintain mental wellness during difficult times.   

Meeting two basic human needs goes a long way toward mental health at work

Our research shows people share two needs at work that top all others. The first is leaders who are compassionate and caring. The second? Confidence in their company’s ability to navigate the future. If these needs are met, people are able to relax more and trust at work—a key ingredient to their mental health. 

Have you given increased leadership during COVID-19 to executives that not only show business prowess but also care about their people? Do you have metrics to measure the latter? And do you promote leaders who excel at communicating? Confidence in a company’s ability to navigate the future usually comes not just from financial results, but from knowing leaders are helping to formulate and execute a shared vision with their people.  

Beyond these top-level needs, our research revealed two main psychological needs people require to be resilient. The first is permission to work differently to be as productive as possible. Productivity really helps our mental health, when we’ve been allowed some agency in how to achieve it. For example, how many people do you know who can remain mentally healthy right now while working eight to 12 consecutive hours? Mental health breaks are essential, as are breaks to allow for child- and elder-care responsibilities, homeschooling and more. Helping your people learn how to set appropriate boundaries--and then respecting those boundaries--goes a long way. 

The second main psychological need is consistent, transparent, clear communication. In a vacuum, people tend to make up their own stories and rumors then abound. Ask yourself: do I communicate with my people regularly or only when crisis erupts? And do I recognize that sometimes means listening more than talking? Do I give them space to ask the questions on their minds—without fear of repercussion—so they can feel the psychological safety at work so essential to their mental health? As leaders, we need to be comfortable with emotion even if it sparks our own emotions. We must give people room to express and share their emotional challenges as easily as their business challenges.  

I am fortunate to have a boss who takes a personal moment at the beginning of every call. That one small thing makes a world of difference in my day. She asks me how I’m doing and we check in with each other. I am usually guilty of just diving into the day’s business. But I am learning to ask my colleague s not just how they are, but how they are feeling today.  
I could go on for pages upon pages regarding mental wellness. But I won’t because I’m guessing you’re steeped in an already very busy day. If you have interest in learning more about what leaders can do for their people to meet not just mental health needs but emotional and other needs, take a look at our report on fostering resilience in your teams. It advises on the top actions leaders can take now to make a long-lasting difference for their people. 

And isn’t that really what leadership is all about?  

Barbara Spitzer

Managing Director, Talent & Organization/ Human Potential, People Experiences Lead

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