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Dealing With the Mental Health Pandemic at Work

March 10, 2021 Leadership
jenn dennard
By Jen Dennard

This is fine. We are fine. Everything is fine. Right?

Recently, it seems everyone I know is hitting a wall. I’m not sure if it’s the looming one-year anniversary of being locked in our homes, or the combination of winter blues with lack of social connection, or perhaps we’re all mourning the many lost lives to covid. The reasons vary, but the truth remains: we are struggling.

Struggling looks different for different people. Some of us feel apathetic, struggling to go through our normal routine or to reach out to family or friends. Others are irritable, snapping at innocuous remarks or getting frustrated more easily.  Some of us are waking up in the middle of the night, panicking about … nothing. (I fall into this camp.)

During normal times, when someone is struggling, we turn to a friend, a partner or a coworker for help because they’re not experiencing the same struggles. Right now, that’s just not the case — turning to someone else for help feels difficult because we know they, like us, are slowly losing their wits.

In fact, almost everyone is dealing with it. Surveys and research show that incidences of depression, anxiety and suicide are significantly up from the normal times. And, unlike covid, there is no vaccine for mental health. Instead, we will be dealing with the ramifications and aftermath of this mental health crisis for many years to come.

You might be wondering how this relates to work. Well, many of us (myself included) use work to escape from the stress of home, the uncertainty of the pandemic, and the lack of control in the rest of our lives. But mental health issues don’t disappear just because you’re on a zoom call.

And so, what do we do when our teammates (and ourselves) are not emotionally well? Here are some of the ideas and practices that have guided our team at Range through this time.

Take Mental Health Seriously

We all experience highs and lows at different times, yet that can make it easy to underestimate the seriousness and severity of mental health issues. When someone is struggling with depression or anxiety on your team, we often turn to default methods of support like giving them a bit of time off, reducing workload temporarily, offering coaching support, suggesting exercise or meditation, etc. But in more intense situations, like what we currently face, those default methods aren’t always enough. We’ll explore different options and methods in the rest of this article, but to start, I like to ask “how would I support this person if they told me they had a severe physical illness, like pneumonia?” That question helps reframe my expectations so that I can think seriously about what the individual might need.

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

Recognize the Symptoms

To help, it’s important to understand when mental health issues have gone beyond just day-to-day stress. Learn to recognize the symptoms of mental health illnesses. At first, the list of symptoms might sound extreme: loss of interest, excessive worry, and more. At work, those symptoms might show up like this:

  1. A shift in how someone engages in conversation or in projects. E.g., they might shift from asking a lot of questions to rarely engaging in conversation.
  2. An increase in irritability or argumentativeness. It might seem like they’re always a bit on edge or have a tendency to get frustrated easily.
  3. Decreased responsiveness to communication or questions about how they’re doing.
  4. Missed deadlines or lack of follow ups, sometimes without explanation.
  5. Oversleeping, missing meetings.

In my experience, it’s rarely just one of these symptoms. It’s often multiple, adding up in small ways. The most difficult thing can be to take a step back and ask “Is this how this person has always been?” Oftentimes symptoms are exaggerations of normal behavioral tendencies, so it can be easy to overlook them.

One way to assess is to start writing notes about what you observe, so you can try to be unbiased about what’s going on and how things are changing. 

With everyone working remote, having visibility into what someone is doing and how they’re feeling can be difficult, here are a few tactics that have worked for our team:

  • Daily written check-ins sharing what happened yesterday and what is planned for today. These check-ins seem simple but over time, they can help create a picture of what someone is able to accomplish relative to past times. And, if someone stops checking in regularly, that’s a signal as well.
  • Note down participation and affect in team meetings. Try to avoid judging any one meeting — anyone can be withdrawn or somber in a meeting, but the goal is to spot patterns or changes.
  • Take notes from 1:1s, particularly noting the actions the teammate plans to take. Again, the goal is to spot patterns.
  • Check in with other teammates about their interactions. This can be sensitive or touchy, so consider doing it for multiple folks or asking generally "how is it going working with so and so on that project?" It’s unlikely anyone will say "it’s going terribly," you likely would have heard that already, but look for signs of hesitation or comments of "it’s fine but been a bit hard to get a hold of" or things along those lines.
  • Take at least one to two weeks to document behaviors before you try to assess them, and make sure to include an HR partner in your assessment as it can be easy to miss things or be biased.

This doesn’t just have to be for others — you can track how you’re feeling as well. Mental illness can sneak up on all of us, especially if symptoms present differently than they have in the past.

Related Article: Your Teams Are Exhausted. Here's What Leaders Can Do

Engage in Conversation

When you start to observe behaviors that might signal a mental health issue, don’t wait to engage that person in conversation. Start now. Ask how they’re doing. If you see someone overreact or withdraw from a conversation during a meeting, follow up to see what’s going on. Your teammate may be fine, just a rough day, but asking and talking about how you and others are feeling on a regular basis can help to normalize those conversations.

If you’re unsure of how to start that conversation, you can try:

“I noticed that you didn’t speak much in that meeting. What’s up?”

“It’s been a really rough year, so I’ve been checking in with people on how they’re doing generally. What’s going on for you?”

Another way to do this is to encourage mood sharing on a daily basis. You can share an emoji or color (red, yellow, green) in a check-in tool like Range or directly in Slack or email. By having teammates share emojis in a shared chat or email thread, it can help to depersonalize the discussion of mood. Instead of asking “you seem upset, is there anything I can do?” You can say “I saw you shared a sad emoji. Do you want to talk about it?”

However you choose to discuss emotions, building a habit of talking about how teammates are feeling helps build up a foundation of trust. That trust is helpful if the situation does get worse, letting you reach out and engage in more difficult conversations.

Related Article: What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader

Pair Empathy With Accountability

When we talk about mental health, it’s often in the context of how to support others. One of the most difficult parts about that support is holding others (and yourself) accountable. In other words, drawing boundaries.

Empathy means being able to connect with your teammate and relate to their experience, not diminishing it or belittling what they may be going through. Pairing empathy with accountability means that you connect support with their responsibilities as a member of the team.

This doesn’t mean that the first time someone asks for help or an issue comes up, you immediately focus on their work responsibilities.

Rather, there can be a fine line between being supportive and enabling. Enabling is when you are allowing a teammate to continue behaving in a way that is harmful to themselves. At work, this might look like consistently letting someone call in sick for extended periods or missing deadlines consistently without a conversation. While it may seem like you are being supportive by letting someone have space at work, if you do that for extended periods of time, you may also be supporting them in not seeing help or addressing their problems. Instead, by pairing support with accountability, you can be empathetic and help the individual to address their problems. This might look like putting specific time limits around time off. (Federal and state regulations as well as internal HR policies can be helpful here.) Or it might look like having a conversation with someone about whether or not they are able to show up for work at 100% right now, and if not, what you all can do to help. By holding a teammate accountable to their work and commitments, and to their needs for self-care, you are often able to get deeper into a discussion about what’s wrong and what support they need.

This discussion can be particularly difficult right now when the ‘situation’ of a global pandemic with kids at home is hard to change. You can and should make allowances to the extent that you and your company are able.

But, being supportive of others can also mean that you take on their work, leading you to burn out and struggle with your own mental health, and that’s not sustainable. Be aware of what responsibilities can be redistributed and what are the limits of your support. And by discussing support in the context of work, you may uncover useful information like whether a role feels overwhelming or that someone wants to take leave.

Seek Professional Help

Taking mental health seriously also means seeking professional help when needed — that’s true for your team and you. If you are struggling to support someone or struggling yourself, talk to your HR or People Ops team about existing resources. And if their resources are not sufficient, reach out to medical professionals.

Mental health is serious. There are several hotlines and resources available here. Please don’t wait to seek help for you or for others.

About the Author

Jen Dennard is the COO and co-founder of Range, the team success software used by Twitter, Carta, CircleCI, and more to keep their teams in sync and connected (even during covid).

Prior to Range, Jen led the organization design team at Medium, deploying custom software and training to help scale the company.

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