Crises of any kind can lead to a host of mental health issues. Following the 2017 fires that consumed much of northern California, for example, calls to mental health lines nearly doubled. A telephone screening following Hurricane Sandy revealed that 14.5% of residents had PTSD, while an additional 6% showed signs of major depression.

Sustained crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, can have an even more profound effect on people’s mental health and well-being. The additional stresses resulting from essential and remote work only serve to exacerbate these effects. Unfortunately, at a time when people most need to pay attention to their mental health and wellbeing, many are finding it a struggle. Mandated social isolation and a rapidly changing news cycle both intensify feelings of loneliness and uncertainty and impair our ability to focus on our well-being.

The good news is that there are things you can do to mitigate these risks and care for your own mental health and well-being, as well as that of your employees.

Know What Risks To Watch For

Having a clear understanding of mental health and other risks is key to positively handling the current situation in the world. Recognize the signs and ensure your managers and employees know what to look for as well. Here are a few things to watch for:

Burn out is characterized by physical, emotional or mental exhaustion from prolonged periods of stress. Some of its side effects include mental fogginess, lethargy, inability to focus, panic, changes in sleeping or eating patterns and possibly stomach pain or headaches.

Compassion fatigue is also known as caregiver syndrome. It happens when an individual is unable to separate work from home, consistently worries about clients, or is assuming a larger than usual share of responsibility. Symptoms can include irritability, self-contempt, difficulty sleeping, weight loss and headaches.

Anxiety is fear or apprehension about the future. It is characterized by an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, restlessness, difficulty concentrating and sleeplessness.

Depression is a severe mood disorder that results in extreme sadness or disassociation. Symptoms can range from tearfulness to angry outbursts and from extreme fatigue to extreme restlessness.

Lead by Example

Everyone needs to know how to recognize the symptoms of people who may be struggling with their mental health, and employers need to lead by example. Research on emotional contagion suggests that workers take their reaction cues from managers during a crisis. Start by acknowledging the stress your employees are under and encourage their confidence with empowering team-focused comments such as, “I know this is stressful, but we’ve got this.” That affirmation will have a positive impact on the individual saying it as well.

Be open about discussing anxiety, too. Use the words, be open and encourage your people to discuss issues in one-on-one and group meetings.

Stay in Touch

It is critical for your own emotional well-being to stay in touch with family and friends at this time. It’s equally critical to stay in touch with your employees. Provide more frequent check-ins, in whatever manner best suits your particular company. Create virtual water coolers that allow your employees to connect. Insist that managers provide opportunities for teams to reconnect socially and catch up with one another at the beginning of each meeting.

Most experts agree that video or voice contact is more effective than text or email, so try to incorporate different methods of communication to best help your staff.

If you have good news, share it widely. Make announcements about enhancements to benefits or other work-related adjustments. Conversely, be honest with your employees when there is bad news to share. Don’t allow speculation and the resulting anxiety to infiltrate your teams. Offer a follow-up Q&A when you do share bad news to foster transparency, mitigate its effects and soften the blow.

Offer Support

Check with yourself regularly concerning your own physical and mental health and provide temporary accommodations to employees who are stressed or facing personal issues. Being patient and flexible and demonstrating your humanity can go a long way to helping struggling workers get through this unprecedented situation.

There are numerous other ways you can support the mental health and well-being of your workers, even if they must work remotely. Leverage and enhance existing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Distribute a list of resources, contacts and self-care courses. If you have the resources, consider launching an employee hotline staffed by counsellors — or host an online Q&A with doctors or experts on the coronavirus for your staff. Actively encourage your managers, who may be more hesitant, to take advantage of these offerings if they require them. Advertise programs heavily and often so that your people know what is available. Different resources will be better fits for different employees, so having a variety of options is critical.

Encourage Breaks

With so many distractions and worries, it is almost certain that productivity will suffer. Be sure your managers establish reasonable goals and timelines for their teams. However, even with slowed productivity, it is critical to take frequent rest breaks throughout the day.

Be especially mindful of breaks when workloads are heavy, because it is often during the busiest periods when people tend to avoid taking breaks. Take a walk, exercise or do whatever is relaxing to you. The key is to step away from the computer and work completely, even for a brief amount of time.

Promote Healthy Living

Healthy eating and exercise can have a profound effect on your mental health and wellbeing and that of your employees. Encourage healthy behaviors via your EAP, webinars or online alerts. Encourage everyone to go outdoors and breathe fresh air — from a safe distance, of course.

Consider hosting online physical activity sessions via a videoconferencing site. Even short periods of physical activity can improve wellbeing. Launch an online variation on the 7th inning stretch during meetings. Host online yoga, Pilates or workout sessions with experienced coaches. Send out reminders to your people to take a break and be active.

Exercise offers multiple benefits for mental health and well-being. In addition to improving physical health, it has a well-established mood-enhancing effect.

Embrace The Challenge And Strengthen Your Team

Understand that these are challenging times, for you, your managers and your employees. While no one has all the answers for the best way to handle the "new normal," offer resources where you can and launch initiatives that support mental health and well-being for everyone.