How to support staff mental health during a crisis

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GLASGOW, Scotland The coronavirus pandemic and restrictions in place around the world are expected to take a toll on mental health. A report published Friday suggests there are already 264 million people suffering from anxiety worldwide, and 322 million experiencing depression. The ongoing crisis will likely cause these numbers to rise, mental health experts told Devex.

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Aiysha Malik, technical officer at the World Health Organization, said that during times of emergency it is normal for people to experience higher levels of stress and distress. These are not mental health issues per se, but chronic stress and anxiety can cause an increase in mental health conditions during and particularly after emergencies, she said.

Remote working is one of the biggest shifts for many people right now and this may create additional stressors. For some, it means isolation, for others it means juggling the demands of homelife in addition to work, Malik said.

Inequality also factors in. Kavita Avula, senior supervisory psychologist at The KonTerra Group, suggested that the kind of home a person has and the resources they have access to will impact their experience of remote working and how they are able to cope with the restrictions.

Devex spoke to mental health experts about what global development and humanitarian employers can do to support their staff during the COVID-19 crisis. It doesn’t necessarily require mental health specialists, Malik said. In fact, “organizations and managers have a huge role to play in alleviating some of the burden that people are facing right now.”

Lead by example

The messages communicated and examples set by management will play a critical role during this period, the experts said.

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Organization leaders must first understand that people can not complete the same workload that they normally would in the office. “Managers should send an explicit message that this is not business as usual and appreciate that everybody has a different context,” Avula said.

Expectations around productivity need to be adjusted and accommodations made for this new reality. It’s also important that managers be proactive in encouraging staff to focus on their own well-being, she added.

Malik agreed that leaders have a role to play in promoting self-care and encouraging staff to rest, eat well, and do activities that might help reduce stress. Making this part of the organization’s culture helps staff feel comfortable if they do need to approach leadership about stress levels, she added.

However, Malik cautioned against focusing too much on what staff themselves can be doing. It’s important that managers are equipped to support staff, she said, and this might involve staying up to date with best practices and doing training on psychological first aid.

Set a precedent with communication

Good communication from leadership can “help staff feel a little bit more contained in what is an uncontaining situation,” Malik said, and managers must demonstrate what effective communication looks like.

Depending on the remit of the organization, updates on the outbreak and advice on staff safety can be important. Ensuring that messages around welfare and well-being are visible also helps those issues be perceived as a priority by staff.

Communication between managers and their team must be regular, with time set aside to check in on staff on a personal level, Malik continued. If this isn’t something that is part of the agenda from the start, it can easily be forgotten as work demands increase. Have mechanisms in place early on that are sustainable and can keep those conversations alive, she advised.

Avula agreed that setting a good precedent is critical. “Weaving mental health into the regular vernacular and referencing it every week is going to be so important now,” she said. She recommended that managers build at least 10 minutes into the start of every meeting to get a sense of how staff are coping.

“Building in time to talk about what people's stressors are, [and] how they're coping will really help team cohesion,” she said. “Give people a chance to name what their reality is so that managers know how to adjust their expectations.”

One-on-one check ins are also critical for managers to understand the context their staff are working in, she added. For example, does an individual have young children home from school and need to adjust their schedule to accommodate this?

Create ‘social spaces’

The informal conversations that take place in the office give people a sense of belonging and build team spirit, said Krystian Fikert, CEO and founder of MyMind, an organization that provides counseling and psychotherapy online.

Managers can facilitate these interactions remotely by creating online groups or channels that are designed for the kind of conversations that would normally take place over a coffee, he said.

There’s room for organizations to get creative in what they offer here — from virtual happy hours to knitting classes. Discussion groups focused on well-being are also important.

“Encouraging that kind of peer support and speaking to each other about this shared experience is going to be helpful,” Malik said.

Empower staff

Travel restrictions mean that some humanitarian staff are unable to support the response on the ground and may be feeling frustrated as they watch from the sidelines. Encourage staff to mentor or share knowledge through online platforms with those who are suddenly finding themselves in emergency response roles, Avula suggested.

“Empower staff to think creatively about how to blog, how to make themselves available for consultation … their services, their knowledge is still needed  it’s just going to have to be disseminated in creative ways,” she said.

Share resources

Malik encouraged managers to be proactive in talking to staff who might benefit from additional support. It’s better to ask a staff member if they would like to reach out for psychosocial support than to hesitate, she said. Be mindful of the different challenges facing staff in higher and lower resource settings too, Malik added — it’s key that national staff receive the same care as international staff.

Fikert noted that there are a lot of free sources available around self-help and cognitive behavioral therapy that can be helpful as a resource for managers and staff. But only use sources that are research-based and from trusted sites, he warned, adding that some can do more harm than good.

Make sure staff know what services are covered by the company policy and what other resources might be helpful to them at this time.

Observe staff behaviors

There are behaviors that can be picked up on even from afar, that indicate an individual is struggling with mental health issues.

“You might see a change in how that person is behaving … they seem more anxious than usual … they seem very low,” Malik explained. Or “it could be that in terms of how people express themselves, they're talking less or [are] less communicative.”

This is why it is especially important to maintain communication during this period of remote working, she added.

Avula noted that using video chat — rather than voice calls alone — allows managers to pick up on visual clues that an individual might not be doing so well. Where a person is not maintaining personal grooming and hygiene, for example, can be a cause for concern. And in situations where there is not capacity for a video chat, it becomes even more important to ask how that person is doing.

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About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.