How to have conversations about mental well-being as Covid-19 re-emerges

By Heather Campbell

Heather here.

Covid-19 is making itself felt more strongly again here in the UK, with varying degrees of lockdown back in force. Talking to clients around the globe, I know that many are also experiencing the sense of one step forward, two steps back brought on by this most insidious virus.

Back at the start of September, I had planned to move away from writing on the subject. Leaders I spoke to were looking forward after the summer period; there was a definite sense of “we’ve got our plans in place and we’re ready to go.” There is still a lot of that sense of future-focus around of course. But there’s something else too. A lot of people are feeling (and some literally saying) “It’s Groundhog Day”. 

Because of the resurgence of the virus and the frustration people are expressing, many of the leaders I am speaking to are increasingly concerned about the mental well-being of their team members and colleagues. Specifically, they are requesting help with how to talk to someone about the impact this is having, and how to handle an emotional response. If you find yourself in this situation, here are seven key actions you can take to have a meaningful and helpful conversation.

1. If you want to find out if new restrictions or concerns about Covid-19 are having a significant impact on someone, ask them. Don’t simply slip in a “How are you?”, even if said in the most solicitous of tones, and hope they feel free to open up. Instead, be upfront. Say something like “It’s tough to see restrictions with Covid-19 tightening again, especially with winter on the way. I’m concerned about the impact on individuals in my team. I’d like to know how you’re feeling about it. How is it impacting you?” This gives the context for your question and makes it easier for the person to answer. Ask in a straightforward way. You don’t need a special bedside manner or to speak more quietly or anything like that. Just ask. Keep this conversation for a one-to-one so that people don’t feel under pressure to give an answer that fits in with everyone else who’s present.

2. Believe the answer. Whether someone gives you a two-word response (‘I’m fine’) or expresses their feelings without taking a breath for the next five minutes, believe they are telling you the truth. You don’t need to probe or push for more, and you don’t need to shut the person down either. Sometimes it can be tempting to assume that the person who says little has a depth of information that they need to share and that you should draw that out. To be fair, they probably do have a depth of information, but it might not be on this subject and they’re choosing not to share it with you anyway, so don’t push.  

3. Listen and avoid giving advice. The fundamental principle here is that you cannot damage someone by listening to them. So, listen freely. As one leader I coached put it: “I’m going to give my team a right good listening to.” Giving advice is a different matter. You can cause damage by giving advice, especially if you haven’t been asked for your advice in the first place. Cialdini’s research into influencing others found that expertise is powerful if you share it when it’s requested. When it’s not requested, however, it’s just plain annoying. It’s the same with giving advice!

4. But how do you handle it if the other person asksfor your advice? Can’t you give it freely then? The risk word here is ‘advice’. If someone acts on your advice and things don’t turn out well, they will blame you. So, what can you do? Let’s imagine a team member asks you something like “Do you think I should visit my 90-year old mum/grandad/neighbour who is shielding but is begging me to visit because they are so lonely?” Here, there are three things you can safely share:

  • a story of something you have done that relates to their dilemma (‘I can’t answer for your situation. Here’s how I handled something similar…’).
  • your view on the pros and cons of taking action/not taking action and ask the individual for their reflections when they hear these.
  • your discomfort with giving advice in light of the complex situation, and instead play back to them what they have told you. Ask them for their own reflections on the dilemma when they hear it played back to them.

These can all seem a bit ‘touchy-feely’. I get that. But, done with genuine intention to help, they are very effective. 

5. If you are really concerned about someone’s well-being, though, and you genuinely believe there is something more going on, what can you do? What if simply believing their answer as highlighted in 2 above just seems a bit hollow? Maybe you think that a team member is depressed, for example, and is putting on a brave face. Or maybe you think that someone is struggling with working from home but isn’t telling you. In this case, tell them that you are concerned and ask them if your concern is ‘right.’ For example, you can say something like “I’m concerned that you are depressed. Is this the case?” One of the fears leaders have is that, by expressing concerns, you may put the idea into someone’s head. It’s extremely unlikely that this will happen. You won’t make someone depressed because you ask them if they might be. It is useful, however, to have ready the reasons for your concern because, chances are, the other person will ask why you thought they were depressed or struggling.

6. You may worry that someone will get emotional – what if they cry, is a common worry. That’s okay. Let them cry. Or shout if they’re angry. Emotions are not dangerous things. They’re actually a good release for the other person. And they won’t hurt you (unless someone is going to get physically violent but I’m guessing that’s unlikely here ?). Maybe someone has been working from home, staring at the walls every day for the last week, and your question triggers that moment of release. Of course, the next challenge is what to do when the other person stops being emotional. What do you do when their tears dry up or their anger subsides? This can be an awkward moment unless handled well. In this case, you’re most probably going to be met with an embarrassed silence followed by a barrage of apology. Here, use a connector phrase and then check if they are okay to continue the conversation, something like: ‘Hey, I’ve been there myself. Are you okay to continue the conversation?’

7. Let someone know that you are available if they want to talk in future. Avoid a generic phrase such as “My door is always open” or “Give me a call any time” or “Let me know if I can help”. People don’t find it easy to act on this kind of statement – it can sound like a platitude. Instead, be specific about what people should do. They’re more likely to believe you mean it and, therefore, to act on it. “This situation isn’t going away any time soon, so if you do find there’s something you want to talk through with me, text/call me on my mobile, any time between 8 am and 8 pm and let me know you’d like to catch up.”  Or “If something does come up and you’d like to talk it through with me, email me and we can plan a time to speak”.  Setting clear boundaries about what people should do makes it easier to act if your support is needed.

And a final point here. In my conversations with leaders, I’m finding that many are feeling great responsibility for managing someone else’s well-being. There is such a sense of wanting to provide support. This is really positive and it’s great that so many organisations and leaders are putting in place practical help. At the same time, however, you cannot fix every aspect of the other person’s situation. Take action where you can but also know your boundaries. If you find that worrying about your team’s well-being is getting you down, remind yourself of this. We are all adults.

This has been a heavy topic. But I know many people are feeling the growing weight of Covid-19 again and the novelty of new ways of working and quizzes on a Friday are mostly in the past. Now and over the coming months is when the most challenging times are likely to come.

Stay safe, stay connected and catch you next time.

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