By Nataly Kogan

10 Practical Science-Backed Ways Leaders Can Support Their Employees’ Mental Health During Challenges

Tags Gratitude Acceptance

10 practices for leaders graphicAs a leader, your job is not to manage people or projects -- it’s to manage emotions, including your own. During this really challenging time (understatement of the year!) that can be really intense and since we don’t learn about emotional fitness skills in MBA or leadership development programs, you don’t always know what to do.

The first thing you can do is make your and your team’s emotional and mental health your number one priority. You can’t give what you don’t have and your team members can’t give what they don’t have. If everyone is depleted and overwhelmed, it doesn’t matter how many motivating talks you give. As mountains of research show, we can’t do great work unless we fuel our well-being first.

Since the pandemic broke out, I’ve done 100+ virtual sessions on emotional fitness skills for teams and leaders and have led 3 virtual leadership development groups, to help leaders bring their full capacity to the challenges they are facing right now -- and help people they lead do the same. 

Here are my 10 favorite science-backed tips to help you strengthen the emotional and mental health of people you lead -- starting with your own.

1. Practice emotional awareness and openness

Whether you like it or not, as a leader, your emotions have an amplified effect on everyone else. So begin by practicing emotional awareness: Check in with yourself by asking “How am I feeling? What is my energy like?” (Do this first thing in the morning and before meetings.)

When your emotions vary from the norm (upset, stressed, more tense than usual) acknowledge them openly by telling people a little bit about why you feel that way. You don’t need to write a novel about your feelings -- just share enough so the other person knows what’s up. This reduces stress and wasted energy for people trying to guess why you’re acting differently and gives them permission to share their emotions more openly.

2. Check-in and listen

Be intentional about checking in with your colleagues one on one to ask them how they are doing. This practice has 2 steps: (1) Ask them how they are and then (2) listen, giving them your full attention, without multi-tasking or trying to fix or give advice. During this challenging time when everyone feels more isolated, checking in with others is a powerful way to create moments of genuine human connection. (And no, you don’t always need to do it on Zoom -- scheduling a quick check-in call works great!)

3. Practice Gratitude

During challenges and difficulties, the human brain’s natural negativity bias -- being more sensitive to what’s wrong or negative -- is in overdrive, making it easy to become overwhelmed with negative thoughts and even hopelessness. Practicing gratitude openly is the best way to counter the negativity spiral. 

Add Gratitude Bookends to your meetings: Begin a meeting by sharing something specific you’re grateful for or expressing your gratitude for someone else and at the end of the meeting, ask someone to do the same. This simple practice elevates the importance of gratitude for your team, encourages people to practice it on their own, and makes meetings more productive and collaborative.

4. Create no-meeting days

To help people you work with have some deep thinking and focused time, create no-meeting days and put them on the team’s calendar. And reduce the frequency of team status meetings, which a recent survey showed have little value over a status email (instead of weekly consider going to bi-weekly meetings.)

5. End meetings 10 mins early for a Self-Care Reset

Research shows that taking 10-20 minute breaks throughout the day boosts productivity, motivation, and focus but it can be challenging to make the time, especially right now when work and life have blended and everyone feels overwhelmed.

Try this: End a meeting 10-20 minutes early and ask everyone to take that time for a Self-Care Reset. You can suggest that everyone ask themselves: “What is something I can do right now to reset and refuel?” and encourage them to do it. Lead by example and share what you’ll be doing for your Self-Care Reset -- and don’t spend that time sending emails or scheduling meetings.

6. Reduce uncertainty when you can

Uncertainty is one of the hardest things for the human brain to handle (it’s main job is to protect us from danger and during uncertainty it has a hard time figuring out how to do it.) Find ways to reduce uncertainty for your team: Set clear priorities and focus attention on a shorter time horizons (“Here’s how we can create impact in the next several weeks vs. what will happen in two quarters.”)

7. Celebrate small wins and each other

It can be easy to get caught up in the challenges and problems during difficult times -- remember the brain’s negativity bias! -- so you want to be more intentional about celebrating wins and each other. Brainstorm a new team ritual for celebrating team and individual achievements and consider adding celebrations, including birthdays and other special occasions, to your team meetings. (Ordering confetti for everyone to throw up in the air in unison is an inexpensive way to make this more fun and special. Just saying.)

8. Make it OK to talk about difficult emotions

Don’t fear that creating space and time for your team to acknowledge their difficult feelings will bring down morale. When we acknowledge difficult feelings, we feel them less intensely and for a shorter amount of time. As Carl Jung said: “That which you resist, persists.” 

One way to encourage emotional openness is to allow time in meetings for people to share what’s weighing on them and to hold space for them as they do it. Research shows leaders who do this are more successful guiding their teams through crises. (Don’t forget to go first -- everyone is looking to you for permission.)

9. Talk about the Bigger Why

Feeling connected to a sense of purpose helps to boost resilience during challenges. Encourage your team to connect to their Bigger Why by asking how the work they are doing is helping or contributing to someone else (another team member, department, company, community, etc.) Encourage these conversations during your 1:1s and at team meetings, especially when dealing with a challenging problem or kicking off new projects.

10. Practice compassion

Compassion means recognizing that we’re all human, we’re imperfect and each have our own struggles, and approaching people with the intention to reduce struggle and suffering. Research shows that when you do your work with compassion, you’re more effective at your job and people you lead are more open and responsive. 

Compassion allows you to connect to others as human beings and create a sense of togetherness and trust, which fuels performance and resilience. To help yourself practice compassion, ask yourself: “What might this person be struggling with to cause them to act this way?”

I know this is a challenging time, but you have an amazing opportunity to help people you work with not just survive, but grow and even flourish through it. Not by doing more, pushing harder or being tougher. But by fueling their emotional and mental health, by making this a non-negotiable priority, and by leading by example by taking care of yours.

Next up: 5 scientifically proven ways to be happier at work

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