J. Karl Sherril, Jr. CIC, CRM, MBA
“Hello, how are you?” Never before has this simple phrase meant more than it does today as we lead our teams in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic challenge. How is your team doing? How are you doing? How is your family? Are you regularly asking these questions of those around you? Are you actively seeking to “see” how they are doing in an environment where “seeing” them (in person) is rare—and sometimes nonexistent?
The isolation and separation that quarantines and shelter-at-home requirements bring is having a significant impact on our lives. All of us have seen news reports and articles stating that a large number of Americans are experiencing symptoms of depression, acute anxiety, a great degree of loneliness and isolation, as well as a host of other assorted stressors. When combined when the fears associated with human contact and the uncertainty of when an end may be in sight, it becomes obvious there is a high degree of apprehension. There have been a number of current pandemic studies, and many have been published on the internet. I aggregated several, yielding the following results. We are experiencing:
• Remarkable levels of depression
• Anxiety, ranging from common to serious
• Detrimental levels of drinking and drug use
• Substantial degrees of loneliness
Responding to this crisis is imperative. It is particularly critical for leaders to be intentional in moving from a perspective of “allowing” breaks for mental health to “encouraging” and maybe even “requiring” the team to engage in good mental health practices.
Here are some examples of mental health exercises you can reinforce within your team.
Lesson #1: Work/Life Balance—Guarding Against “Always On”
Work/life balance is not a new concept. Pre-pandemic, many organizations were actively promoting this balance among their teams. What is new is the pressure that the pandemic has brought to bear on this balance. Teams have been abruptly forced to bring their work home for the first time, for many. For others, working from home was not new. Whether new or seasoned veterans, the pandemic has brought about a new dynamic to the home office. We have all found ourselves surrounded by others who are also working full time from home: spouses, partners, and children. The lines between work and home life have become blurred. With no clear delineation between work and home, people tend to feel like they are “always on.” Three suggestions to help bring balance back to this setting are:
• Set boundaries
Designate and be accountable to specific work areas in the home. Be equally accountable to designated personal spaces. Engage and focus on work when you enter the workspace and mentally unplug when you enter the personal spaces.
• Schedule everything
With so many things outside of our control because of the pandemic, we can still control how we spend our day. Take the time to schedule your work and home life activities. This may sound simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Protect your plan for the day and review tomorrow’s schedule the night before. Studies have shown that knowing what tomorrow holds will help put your mind at ease, which leads to better sleep. Start your day with a quick review so you are better equipped to control the day’s activities.
• Schedule healthy lifestyle time
As you build your schedule, do not neglect your mental and physical health. Build in the time for walks, exercise, journaling, reflection, reading, etc. Protect this time the same as you would a new business meeting.
Lesson #2: Unplug
PTO? Vacation? Breaks? These terms may have taken a backseat during this challenging time. This was true for me until I was encouraged by a mentor to unplug. The timing was good because my sons had just completed the most tumultuous fourth quarter in their school lives, and I was feeling the pressure of always being “on” with the home office and to-do lists in view both day and night. We decided we all needed to unplug, and so we headed to South Mountains State Park, with no cell signal, no email, and no social media for three days.
For those who are curious, three days unplugged resulted in 387+ emails unopened in my inbox. Unplugging also gave me an opportunity to lose myself in thought. We hiked close to ten miles in two days, cooked campfire foil packs for dinner, refreshed in the cool mountain river water rushing by our tents, and mostly laid in hammocks and read books between naps.
I was amazed at how physically difficult it was to not click on the email app on my phone or check social media. This led me to delete those apps to avoid the temptation. It was MARVELOUS! This was the mental health break that we all needed. Unplugging was not easy, but it was necessary. I can honestly say it was the best that I have felt, mentally, since being sent home by COVID in March. If you are an organizational leader, I heartily recommend that you give some thought to how you can support your team in finding some time to unplug.
Lesson #3: Routines Protect Positive Mindsets
It is hard to be positive in normal times. COVID has accelerated the crisis by combining abrupt and long-lasting isolation with the real physical health concerns of the pandemic. The isolation can make it difficult to maintain a positive outlook. It is important that we build in mechanisms that provide guardrails along our daily road which will prevent us from taking a negative path. Daily routines can help guard against negative thought. Regardless of how I feel in the morning, every day starts with the same routine, which includes:
• Tuning out electronics until the routine is done: no checking email and no social media until I have already built up my immunity to negative thoughts.
• Morning affirmations: Saying something out loud has proven to have a bigger impact on our focus then just thinking it. Each morning I review and say out loud my core values to help me affirm what is non-negotiable in my day. It just so happens that joy is one of my values. My belief is that it can be found in any situation, and verbalizing this reminds me to seek it out instead of focusing on negative thoughts.
• Journaling: Writing it down has a similar effect as verbalizing affirmations. Develop a basic outline you will follow each day. One of the most valuable parts of my journaling is writing down a list of things I am grateful for in my life and what I am looking forward to that day. This helps redirect my thinking to the things that are going well.
• Review the schedule for the day: by understanding what lies ahead, I am able to prioritize my time and mentally prepare. Understanding what’s next in the day reduces unknowns. This simple certainty provides some positive reinforcement that I am ready to take on the day.
Lesson #4: Positive Networks and the Top Five
We all spend most of our days building our networks. Did you know that, for most people, we are a direct reflection of the top five people we spend our time with? These five people shape our viewpoints, which means that we should really think about who is in our top five. Start by writing down the top five people who get your time. Take an honest look at the list and ask yourself questions such as: Do my top five contribute positively to my beliefs? Is there someone who will challenge my viewpoints to help me to see the broader picture? Who could bring new perspectives or ideas? Am I taking care of both my personal and professional needs? Invest your time with people who help you to maintain a positive viewpoint.
Leaders should be strategically focused on how their team is doing, now more than ever. How they are feeling? Are they consistently finding ways to protect a positive mindset? Is someone suffering from negative thoughts? What can you do to help the team be mentally strong? When seeking physical strength, we turn to exercise. When it comes to mental health, exercise is also a way to protect our mental strength. Unprecedented, by definition, means there is no precedent, no guide, no policy manual, etc. In an unprecedented pandemic, everyone is searching for a path to follow to stay positive and strong in this difficult time. Make an additional effort to go below the surface and find the true answer to the question, “How are you doing?”