How 8 Business Leaders Are Keeping Employee Mental Health in Mind During the Coronavirus Pandemic

These strategies will help you lead with compassion.

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Getty Images

During this time of major upheaval and uncertainty in our lives, business leaders have had a lot on their plates. In addition to keeping their companies healthy and staying afloat, they’ve played a key role in helping their (newly) remote workforces navigate their day-to-day, stay productive, and — just as important — protect their mental health. 

After all, there is nothing “business as usual” about work today. Nearly seven in 10 employees say the COVID-19 pandemic has been the single most stressful time of their career, according to a survey by mental health provider Ginger. And in a national study of over 5,000 U.S. employees conducted by Thrive Global, 85% of respondents said they wish their employer would do more to help them adapt and manage. 

Every May is Mental Health Month, but this year, the critical importance for companies to be attuned to the whole human well-being of their employees has come into sharper focus. That’s why Thrive spoke with leading CHROs and executives to hear the strategies they’re implementing to protect the mental health of their teams. As we continue to operate in the new normal, and prepare for the next normal, one of their tips may inspire a new idea for your organization.

“No internal meetings Friday”

“We talk a lot at Accenture, across our entire organization, about the importance of self-care. We need to take care of ourselves first so we can be there for others — be it our family, friends, or our work family. And part of self-care is having the courage to ask for help.

Last week we started ‘no internal meetings Friday’ across the globe. We are encouraging our people to take PTO on Fridays so they can recharge — as these weeks of sheltering at home/lockdown have been intense. By having no internal meetings, people feel they can really take off and not miss something important.

We are very intentional about checking in with each other and making time to really connect so people feel seen, heard, and supported during this challenging time. I think these good habits will be something we carry forward post-crisis. We want to emerge with even stronger connections during this time of ‘distancing.’  We’re seeing parts of each other’s lives that we maybe didn’t have the privilege to see, or we kept private, before we were forced into this new normal.”

— Ellyn Shook, Chief Leadership & Human Resources Officer at Accenture

Try a team meditation session

“We’re confronting unprecedented challenges as we all navigate what has become our new reality, but as leaders, we have a unique opportunity to build more connection, engagement, and resilience across our teams. The significance of this connection has skyrocketed as we’re all searching for ways to maintain our sense of wellness.

A company’s employees are its greatest strength — especially their health and happiness — which is why we’re committed to encouraging mindfulness at work. I lead a daily meditation session online, open to LinkedIn employees as well as anyone else who’d like to join. I also have a LinkedIn Learning course available for free on some of my favorite strategies to use in various workday scenarios.

I want to ensure my colleagues know I care for them as people, so taking the time to just check in, ask what they need and most of all, listen and be there for them.”

— Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn

Hold a daily “Human Connection” touchbase

“Caring for our employees during this next phase remains a priority. We continue to work in an adjusted state right now and we’re planning for what’s next as governments begin plans to reopen. Communication and remaining accessible and visible is critical during a time of crisis and uncertainty.  Verizon’s leadership team is speaking live every day with all employees to keep us connected and informed. I hold a daily ‘Human Connection’ business-free touchbase with my direct reports. We’ve met one another’s families, pets, shared tips on how to survive and even thrive, learned how to make a Mexican meal during Cinco de Mayo, and celebrated birthdays virtually, including with one of my co-workers’ daughters.  

As the lines between work and home continue to blur, we have to remember to keep a schedule, set boundaries, and include things that lift our spirit on the calendar. A quick tip for mental well-being is to repurpose your daily commute time with exercise, a breathing activity, or any other offline activity that makes you feel good, including volunteerism. It’s really encouraging to see thousands of our employees raise their digital hands across more than 11,000 virtual events. We all feel anxious and uncertain about the situation and giving ourselves time and space for joy goes a long way.”

— Magda Yrizarry, Chief Talent and Diversity Officer/SVP Employee Experience at Verizon  

Avoid meetings around lunchtime

“About 40% of my team has young children. Integrating work and personal responsibilities can be incredibly difficult in the best of times, so I’ve started talking about work-life blend. I encourage my team to be OK with the ‘perfectly imperfect’ ways we’re working. We now have a rule where we try to avoid meetings around lunchtime so team members can get lunch for themselves, their kids, take care of naptime, take a walk and disconnect during the day.

In my weekly team calls, we still begin every session with a moment of gratitude, which reminds us as a team to pause and take stock of what’s important and gives me a chance to understand how my team is feeling.

Lastly, I encourage my teams to proactively manage the workday and not let it manage them. Being mindful and realistic about what you can and cannot do is critical. If you know everyone on your call and you’re getting Zoom-fatigue, feel free to turn off your camera and take that meeting on a walk! Choice is the key. It’s important that we empower employees to decide when, where, and how they want to work and stay productive, regardless of whether that’s on a desktop, laptop, or mobile.”

— Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow

Ask, “How are you, really?”

“We have a number of ways to support mental health at IKEA and one has been to increase virtual leadership seminars on topics such as resilience, vulnerability, and the importance of dialogue. It’s helping us all in so many ways, not only with work, but also life. 

If it looks like someone might be struggling, reaching out and asking, ‘How are you, really?’ can open up to a much bigger conversation. It’s clear that everyone has different reactions to this situation and we often don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives. They could be dealing with health, family, financial worries that we don’t know about. So much sits behind the behaviors we observe, so we shouldn’t judge what we see. You need to really step up when they need you. I have ‘breathe & chat’ one-to-ones with my management team — no agenda, just time to properly check in, and I really enjoy those opportunities to connect, even when we’re apart.”

— Olivia Ross-Wilson, Head of Communications at IKEA

Be kind — because you never know what someone else is going through

“Every facet of our lives is impacted, and as a result, a lot of the usual ‘escape’ mechanisms are not available to us. Add to that, of course, the human toll this is taking. There’s no way you can ever get used to that. I do a weekly blog and video meeting with my team. I also have a list every day of team members around the world to check in with to just see how they are doing. Also, I like to write to people — just to send an encouraging note. And my handwriting is so bad it gives the recipient a puzzle to solve.

I truly believe that kindness and empathy are vastly underrated corporate values and they matter so much now. This means asking someone how they’re doing and really caring, saying thank you (another soon-to-be-extinct term), or being kind, because you never know what someone else is going through.  Performance is entirely correlated to how people are treated. Like most good investments, the return might not always manifest over the short term, but it absolutely will result in better performance and engagement.”

 — Hannah Grove, Chief Marketing Officer at State Street

Pay attention to colleagues’ nonverbal cues

“When you are talking to a teammate, start conversations just by asking, ‘How are you today?’ and taking a moment to acknowledge colleagues’ emotional wellness. I make sure to ask open-ended questions. In normal times that’s important, but right now it’s so critical to let people experience what they’re experiencing and make sure they have an opportunity to talk things out and reflect. 

I’ve also found that being able to see people in conversation via WebEx is important. Getting a sense of what they’re saying, but also how they’re saying it can completely change the meaning of their words. We do our weekly H.R. leadership team meeting virtually, and just this week one of my teammates had his daughter drop in — adorable! Nonverbal cues are so important in really recognizing someone’s feelings. Everyone is feeling anxiety and stress in some way right now, so taking these steps to help them acknowledge those feelings, and not being critical of oneself, are key to both our well-being and our ability to succeed in our jobs.  

I’ve also been encouraging our teammates to take advantage of the expanded mental health resources we’re offering to help cope with added strains and challenges brought on by the coronavirus. We’ve issued myStrength, a free online and mobile mindfulness app offering personalized activities to support U.S. teammates’ emotional wellness, and the Headspace meditation app for our teammates in the U.K.”

— Sheri Bronstein, Chief Human Resources Officer at Bank of America

Establish personal principles to live by

“Hospitality is all about the power of the human connection. While digital solutions won’t ever replace 

that, we are trying out every channel imaginable to stay connected. We need to be flexible and meet co-workers where they are. In our hotels, our G.M.s are checking in on their teams through social networking groups and encouraging community engagement projects that are bringing people together to help others. 

We’ve also asked our Team Members to put a few personal principles in place to bring some normalcy to the new routine and help combat the mental and physical intensity of this moment. We’ve seen them set promises like putting family first, setting boundaries, making time for themselves, and letting go of perfectionism. It’s resulted in really powerful conversations between managers and their teams and peer groups.

While no one is looking to adopt this ‘new normal’ longer than we have to, it’s been reaffirming to see how truly resilient and creative our Team Members are.”

— Matt Schuyler, Chief Human Resources Officer at Hilton

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