Sage-Gavin: 3 business leaders offer insights on mental health crisis

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HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

COVID-19 has proved devastating to many people’s mental health. Nearly 20% of people who contract the disease report mental health issues within three months of diagnosis. And the impact is not restricted to those with the virus. The staggering death rate, widespread social isolation, and frightening economic disruption caused by the pandemic have had a profound impact globally.

In the U.S., four in 10 adults now report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. In the U.K., critical indicators of distress such as loneliness, increased suicide risk and an inability to cope with stress are thought to be worse now than at the start of the pandemic.

Responding to this crisis will require input from the healthcare sector, governments, nonprofit organizations and community support groups. There are no easy answers, but we will need all the ingenuity and collaboration that allowed us to tackle the many challenges of the last year and led to innovations such as the fast-track development of vaccines.

How HR and business leaders can show up for their people in crisis

, Sage-Gavin: 3 business leaders offer insights on mental health crisis,  HEALING MENTAL HEALTH TOGETHER

As people start returning to work (whether full-time or as part of a flexible approach), chief human resources officers and business leaders are being called on to lead the response.

A thoughtful strategy is critical to individual, team and organizational resiliency. For example, we know that fear and anxiety negatively affect decision-making. Research suggests that an organization’s ability to realize the benefits of change declines significantly as levels of fear and anxiety rise. The danger is that, even where the pandemic has led to positive change, such as through more flexible working practices or the acceleration of digital transformations, the associated benefits may not be fully realized.

Related: Mental health will be a hot topic at the free, virtual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, May 11-13. Click here to register.

Conversely, other studies have shown that companies that leave their people “Net Better Off” outperform peers in revenue growth. Net Better Off includes ensuring the emotional and mental needs of workers are met. Organizations that lead in this area continually refine their wellbeing initiatives to support people’s changing needs, including psychological safety (i.e., the feeling that you can speak up and be yourself at work) and mental wellbeing.

To get more solutions on how leaders can address the mental health crisis, I reached out to colleagues who work at the intersection of behavioral science and workforce management. My conversations with them have given me renewed hope that we will overcome the present situation and have strategies and tools in place to support workers through the current crisis and long into the future.

Turn empathy into a science

One source of inspiration is the work of Diana Barea, culture, leadership and behavior change innovator for Accenture UK and Ireland. Diana is part of a network of 150 behavioral scientists who focus on improving outcomes for businesses and their people. Diana believes that the pandemic will catalyze positive change:

“The pandemic has forced leaders to take a whole-person view of their workers, taking into consideration their home situation as well as the impact of the pandemic on their physical and mental wellbeing. When people return to work, leaders will be expected to maintain this focus.

  • , Sage-Gavin: 3 business leaders offer insights on mental health crisis,  HEALING MENTAL HEALTH TOGETHER

“The workforce is telling leaders clearly that the working environment will need to change from the version we’ve lived with for decades, and leaders must be scientific about these changes. The rich diversity we have in our workforces means there is a range of needs, and to understand these differences, leaders should continue to listen to their people and keep engaging them through virtual town halls and other platforms. The resulting data can be analyzed to draw insight into requirements around flexible working, health and wellness programs.”

“By adopting an experimental mindset where we test and learn how different answers resonate with unique groups of workers—including a control group—leaders can identify a range of return-to-work pathways tailored to their people’s needs.”

Nudge people to better

This scientific, measurement-based approach is also championed by Ilhan Scheer, managing director and founder of fABLE+, which uses behavioral science and analytics to increase team performance.

As Ilhan told me, emotions are contagious—negative and positive—and with a workforce that is anxious in the wake of COVID-19, this could have a severe impact on performance. Ilhan and his team focus on nudging workers to a place of high psychological safety and high performance. Here’s what he told me:

“Negative emotions are themselves like a virus, and leaders need to combat them similarly: by testing, taking appropriate action, then testing again. We’ve applied the approach to our workforce during the pandemic with good results.

“The important thing is to poll workers at very regular intervals with brief questions about their state of mind. This ‘pulse check’ allows leaders to track workers’ moods and quickly see when there’s a significant change. If this change is negative, then leadership knows that it’s time to act.

“The good news is that even small actions can have a huge impact—often even something as small as a friendly team chat to talk through issues can be enough to nudge people back to the zone where they feel safe and trusting. But without that timely stream of data insights on your workers’ wellbeing, problems can quickly mount up.

  • , Sage-Gavin: 3 business leaders offer insights on mental health crisis,  HEALING MENTAL HEALTH TOGETHER

“Using survey tools to get team insights is not so much about monitoring performance or the leader being tasked with how to interpret the results. Rather, it’s an opportunity to have an open conversation with the team and to then use the results to develop a common language for the team’s challenges. It can be a powerful forum for leaders to listen and employees to be heard in a meaningful way.”

Apply an agile framework

Simon Hayward, CEO and founder of Cirrus, says that one way to support workers during this difficult time can be found in agile approaches to work. Here’s Simon’s take:

“Research conducted with Alliance Manchester Business School revealed that agile teams boost employee performance and engagement, and they performed well during COVID-19. That’s important because it suggests that the routines and rituals of agile working, such as daily stand-ups and monthly retrospectives, help maintain a sense of continuity, focus and support.

“These rituals are a great way to connect with people and provide the human interaction that workers need now more than ever. Adopting an agile framework can help support people who may be feeling anxious during the return to work. This is because agile brings [together] many of the ingredients needed for a supportive working environment, such as safe and rewarding teamwork, opportunities for learning, devolved decision-making, coaching and workload prioritization. That results in a more engaged and secure workforce, and a more effective one too.”

Lead with compassion and strength for a better tomorrow

Many people feel overwhelmed by recent events, and this trauma needs to be acknowledged. My recent conversations with colleagues making strides in improving their people’s mental wellbeing have reassured me that HR and business leaders can once again deliver for their people.

You have to start from a position of strength. Research from 2017 found that people in high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout than people at low-trust companies. HR and business leaders have shown up for their people throughout the pandemic, and that will have increased trust. What’s required now is for leaders to present a positive vision of the future and show their people how they will be supported as the business changes. This will not be easy, but with compassion and strength, I’m confident HR and business leaders around the world will make all the difference.


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