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Prioritizing mental wellness and self-care in times of COVID-19

As the Covid-19 pandemic pushes the limits of our global economy and healthcare systems, another, quieter crisis underpins it all—the toll it’s taking on our mental health.

By Wendy Johnstone, SVP & COO APAC, Zendesk

Published October 12, 2020
Last updated October 12, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic pushes the limits of our global economy and healthcare systems, another, quieter crisis underpins it all—the toll it’s taking on our mental health.

The pandemic has already had a negative impact on our mental well-being. We’re physically distancing from loved ones and our normal way of life, and anxious about a still-mysterious and deadly illness.

  • In May, a report by Ipsos found that one quarter of Singaporeans said they were not in good mental health, while a more recent report by PURE Group found that almost half of surveyed Singaporeans (49%) were affected by work-related stress during Circuit Breaker—Singapore’s “lockdown”—than anything else
  • Additionally, 19% of Singaporeans said they suffered from mental health-related issues during this time, with a lack of sleep, financial problems, and work pressures being the biggest causes

The mental-health fallout of COVID-19 in the workforce is alarming and needs more attention. According to Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends Study, while 45% of executives believe their talent can adapt to this ‘new world of work’, just 14% actually conducted internal surveys to discover how employees are coping. Even before COVID-19, the World Health Organization said around 86 million people in Southeast Asia alone live with depression, and 60 million with anxiety.

So, while companies usually talk about disruption in terms of what it means for business models, I believe that the most disruptive businesses in 2021 and beyond will be the ones that truly focus on how they approach and manage the mental well-being of their people.

Every company must make mental wellbeing a business priority

With mental illnesses rising in every country in the world, dealing with mental health at an organizational level is imperative.

After all, how many employees would truly feel comfortable asking for a ‘mental health day’, or even taking an allocated sick day to focus on their mental well-being? There is still a stigma attached to mental health, where employees may fear being ostracized, demoted, or even dismissed for simply disclosing their need for mental-wellness support.

While many companies around the world have increased their focus on workplace mental health, it’s often done in a reactive manner when prompted by employees. But a Willis Towers Watson 2020 Global Medical Trends Survey found insurance providers across APAC predicted mental health and behavioural conditions will be among the top three most common conditions over the next five years. This is not a small number—but it’s something we can prepare for as employers.

Organizations with a strong focus on overall health are likely to be better equipped in the current pandemic, and it’s never too late to change the way you support your workforce:

Make sure employees are aware of internal resources available to them

You might have all the resources at your disposal, but if employees don’t feel comfortable accessing and using them, then what’s the point? In my experience, employees that are aware of and encouraged to use internal resources are better at identifying and managing their stressors, and therefore become better at looking after their own mental wellbeing.

Be a vulnerable leader

One study found Millennials and Gen Z want mental health to become a normalized part of the employment experience—probably because 60% had never spoken about their mental health struggles with anyone at work, and one third had even left a previous job due to mental-health pressures.

While sharing your own mental-health struggles can be truly powerful—as a leader or otherwise—it’s easier said than done. To create change, we can start small, such as letting someone know the reason you’re leaving early one day is to have a couple of hours to yourself, or to attend a therapy appointment. Being a vulnerable leader will open the door for others to share, too.

Be flexible and inclusive in your approach to mental wellness

This means not assuming what employees need, but rather taking a customized approach. Mental well-being is most certainly has a diversity and inclusion element, as different demographic groups will have different needs for support. The experience of mental health is in no way uniform, and our approach shouldn’t be either.

Lead by example with your own self-care

There’s a reason why, on airplanes, they tell you to look after yourself before tending to others.

I recently started a new role in a new company, and with that comes meeting new people, of course. This is something that can create anxiety for me at the best of times, but it was amplified by being forced to do it virtually in the midst of a pandemic.

I realised that I had to check in with myself more often and manage my own wellbeing, enabling me to listen better to others and understand what they were finding difficult as I transitioned into my new role.

Putting your own oxygen mask on first can look like many different things, but in my experience,these are the best tips for self-care as a leader:

Check in with yourself

You can’t identify the areas of your life that need more attention before you check the pulse of your mental health. Ask yourself how you’re really doing.

If you’re feeling more stressed than usual, crying more often, struggling to sleep, or failing to find joy in things that once excited you, it’s probably time to exercise some proper self-care.

Plan your treatment

For me, building resilience in chaotic timescalls for routine. I take an early morning walk each day; getting out in nature helps me get ready for my busy day ahead. I have also taken up Yin Yoga, which is a great way to end my day and wind down after all those Zoom calls.

Anything that is regular, expected, and formulaic will help when you’re surrounded by other factors you can’t control.

Ask for help, and be available to help others

Shaking up your self-care can’t always be done alone. We all need assistance from the people around us, either to hold us accountable, to give advice, or simply to listen to us.

But there are times when we need more help than our loved ones can provide, and reaching out to professional resources is always a good idea. In conjunction with this, you can also make sure you’re available for others, and reach out to show people how much you appreciate them.

We still have a long way to go on this COVID-19 journey, and as much as we would like things to return to the way they were, they won’t anytime soon. We can’t control everything, but we can control how we respond to our new reality, looking after ourselves and others.