As Covid-19 continues to redefine the way leaders communicate within and beyond the office, many are reeling from a rise in workplace-related anxiety and stress. A recent study by Mind Share Partners, in partnership with Qualtrics and SAP, showed a decline in the mental health of nearly half of respondents since the onset of the pandemic. Nationwide, almost half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll

While treatment of serious mental health concerns should be left to trained professionals, there are steps that every leader can take to alleviate the pandemic's toll on the overall well-being of their employees. Despite the unpredictability of the moment, these practices can provide a much-needed lift to the many people now experiencing heightened fears about their emotional and even physical health. 

Care for employees with high-touch communication.

As teams continue to work from a distance, it's crucial that managers remain visible by communicating with frequency and intention. By staying in regular contact with employees, leaders can spot signs of emotional wear-and-tear before they become more pronounced. More important, dedicating time and resources to these check-ins sends a clear message to people that their emotional health matters. 

Scarcity of time is no excuse. For especially busy clients, I've recommended a 15-2-1 approach: Spend 15 minutes talking to two members of your team once a week. Making these conversations ritualized and routine eases some of the discomfort and stigma that may arise when discussing mental health ("This doesn't apply to me" or "I'm doing fine-- why bother?") and can yield positive, business-oriented results for managers and employees alike. 

For high-touch communication that goes beyond trite greetings, try these helpful prompts:

  • Do you feel like you have enough time to get your work done in a reasonable manner?
  • How do you feel at the start and end of your day?
  • Are you finding ways to stay connected to the team? 
  • How can I be a better ally for you right now?

Allow others to reframe and refocus.

Researchers have demonstrated the restorative effects of reframing and refocusing in alleviating emotional pain. According to one study, individuals who suffered setbacks but then envisioned a brighter future through "prospective writing" experienced a sense of post-traumatic growth. Other studies have shown that individuals coped better with significant life changes when they actively focused on their core values and beliefs. 

These are not clever tricks to bypass real concerns. Rather, they are powerful frameworks for helping your employees gain control over fears both real and imagined by enlisting the support of those closest to them. Leaders can play a pivotal role in facilitating this process simply by "showing up" for their employees with offers of compassion, concern, and commitment. Just knowing that someone is there to help can be reassuring.

Pay attention to physical indicators and nonverbal cues.

Individuals who are struggling with stress and anxiety often show signs of distress. Early indicators include changes in behavior and mood, as well as nonverbal cues like alienating body language and disposition. Attentive leaders should be aware of the following red-flag behaviors by employees:

  • Exhibiting excessive nervousness, restlessness, or irritability
  • Acting overly passive, worried, or tense
  • Avoiding group gatherings, whether in-person or virtual
  • Showing visible signs of fatigue, aches, or pains

For leaders, paying attention pays off: Researchers have found that people volunteer less information and speak less articulately when talking to inattentive bosses, whereas attentive bosses -- as measured by their awareness of nonverbal cues -- receive more relevant and detailed information even without having to ask for it. Before you can advocate for others, you need to notice how they communicate their unspoken needs. 

There's no telling when the effects of the pandemic will substantially ease or whether we'll ever return to the old rhythms of work. No matter the circumstances, leaders should prioritize the mental and emotional well-being of their employees as a matter of sound practice. Organizations achieve a higher order of purpose when they help individuals experience a deeper sense of wholeness.