Last week I listened to an HBR podcast with Morra Aarons-Mele, entrepreneur and author, on leading through anxiety which really struck a chord with me and felt particularly relevant given that this week is National Mental Health Awareness week.   

Given the immense uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is not surprising that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently reported that the number of adults reporting deep levels of concern and stress had more than doubled since late 2019.  Just like me, many people are concerned about their health and the health of their friends and family; they fear for the impact on the economy and their own financial security and they wonder when and if life will ever return to ‘normal’ so they can once again enjoy a drink with friends, hug loved ones and walk past someone in the street without giving them a wide berth.   

As business leaders, how can we deal with the stress and anxiety caused by this crisis, and at the same time reassure our staff, who will undoubtedly be experiencing similar emotions, when we don’t have all the answers and we want to appear calm and in control? 

The most important thing, as Aarons-Mele emphasised last week, is to recognise that it is perfectly normal to feel anxious and concerned at the moment and it is ok to not feel ok. Stress and anxiety are natural human reactions with our brains hard-wired to respond to perceived threats by triggering physiological responses.

The monumental changes that our society has experienced over the last few months will undoubtedly have prompted these emotions in the vast majority of us and with 61% of employees reporting feeling anxious, distracted or stressed due to coronavirus, we can actually use our own feelings of anxiety to reassure and support our teams. 

1. Firstly, share how you are feeling with your team. In my previous role for a large public sector organisation, I was encouraged to adopt the swan’ approach when faced with a stressful or uncertain situation. i.e. to appear calm and serene on the surface whilst paddling frantically underwater. However, maintaining a calm exterior in the face of the calamitous impact of the coronavirus pandemic could actually have a negative impact on your team by causing others to mask their own feelings of anxiety for fear of appearing ‘weak’ or because they are too embarrassed to admit their concerns. By telling them that you are feeling anxious (without disintegrating into floods of tears on the Zoom call) you can show others that it is ok to not feel ok which may then encourage them to share their own worries. 

2. Secondly, ask people how they are doing. According to recent HBR survey nearly 40% of people say their company has not even asked them how they’re doing since the pandemic began. How can we inspire and support our teams if we don’t even know how they are feeling or what they are dealing with? Understandably, not everyone may feel comfortable opening up and sharing their emotions, but by setting an example and providing a listening earyou will create an environment for others to speak up. Encourage and coach your managers to do this with their teams as welland ensure that there is clear signposting to help and resources where needed. 

3. Finally, even though you may be worried that you don’t have all the answers at the moment, communicating regularly and encouraging your staff to ask questions will be welcomed. Be honest with them and don’t sugar coat it. People can handle the truth, even when that means telling people that you don’t know at the moment. Give certainty and reassurance where you can and when the answer is not clear, explain that you will come back to them with more information when you can. Regular, honest, and clear communications are essential in uncertain times and will help you build the trust which will be the key in helping you to lead them through the crisis. 

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is kindness and in these unprecedented times it is more important than ever to remember to be kind to ourselves and to promote and model compassionate leadership. 

Thank you for reading. 

Jo Draper 

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