Deborah Greenwood-Smith is Equiem's Chief Operating Officer with an extensive background in senior operations and HR, specialising in global business transformation. With experience working in tech and property industries all over the world, she's shared the top lessons she's learned when it comes to managing her team's mental health in a pandemic.
It feels like an eternity ago now, but I remember the moment when that first news notification popped up on my phone: "PM announces new business restrictions to stop COVID-19 spread". My stomach sank and my head swam with uncertainty. I didn't know it then, but that was going to become an all too familiar feeling over the next few months. I wasn't alone.
How can management respond to the pandemic?
This pandemic has changed so much for so many of us; loss of liberty, loss of normality, loss of the things we took for granted. Workplaces have been turned inside out as well. Now the home is the office, the conference room, and the school. Sometimes it feels like a prison too. It's no wonder people are struggling.
So how can a manager protect the mental health of their team in the face of a pandemic, when all you have is a laptop and a kitchen table at your disposal? To begin with, we didn't have all the answers, but we quickly learned what worked. The recipe that emerged was this: Be clear. Be kind. Be creative. Be a leader. Be honest.
Lesson 1: Communicate clearly. Communicate early. Communicate consistently.
While we had no experience with COVID-19, we knew that it meant change and, as a rapidly growing technology company, if there's one thing we know, it's change. The key to managing change is understanding that it creates uncertainty, and uncertainty feeds fear. If you leave employee questions unanswered, they will come to their own conclusions, so be honest about what will change and emphasise what will stay the same. From the outset, we've been committed to being open and honest with our team. When we know something, they know. Announcements are made to the entire team at the same time, and we are transparent about what we do and do not know. Most importantly, we show a way forward, even if we don't have all the answers.
Lesson 2: Trust demands vulnerability
Just because you show a way forward, doesn't mean people will follow you. For that, there needs to be trust. Of course, trust doesn't happen overnight — it's earned over time. Fortunately, this has been a core principle of ours since day one, and in times like this, it makes all the difference. Nevertheless, uncertainty puts trust to the test. People need to know that you're genuine and that requires moments of vulnerability — from the executive team all the way down. It means demonstrating that it's OK not to be OK. It's never your proudest moment, but in a crisis your people want to know that you're authentic, not perfect.
Lesson 3: Think differently
It was obvious that mental health was going to be a growing risk, and we suddenly had to find proactive and creative ways to support the team. We've always worked closely with Allos, our Employee Assistance Program partner, and identified the key risks to the resilience and wellbeing of our people. With that, we came up with the idea of weekly virtual group check-in sessions. They became a "third space" for the team — somewhere that wasn't work or home. With familiar therapists facilitating, team members could check-in with themselves and each other, decompress and take away psychological strategies to help them through the week ahead. Six months later, and the weekly sessions are still going with positive feedback from the team on how valuable they have been. As circumstances evolve, so do the sessions. The key takeaway here is that it's all about experimenting and adapting.
Lesson 4: Take meaningful action
Paying lip-service to mental health is not enough. We all need to walk-the-walk when it comes to mental health, and leaders set the pace. By demonstrating real commitment to the mental health of our employees Equiem is not only reducing suffering and potentially saving lives, we are pouring deep foundations for our culture and our business. Because of this, Equiem will be stronger post-pandemic.
Lesson 5: People are amazing
Looking to the future, the uncertainty for our nation and the world can't be ignored. Still, one key theme that keeps coming up in our weekly group check-ins is that our past, and what we've experienced, is proof that we can endure and overcome the incredible challenges. For me then, the fifth lesson is this; never underestimate yourself or your team.