Coronavirus mental health crisis: 5 ways leaders can help

There are five ways business leaders can help those struggling with mental health through the coronavirus pandemic, according to UNSW Business School experts

One in five Australians aged 16-85 will experience a mental health illness in any year, but in the current crisis, worry and anxiety are becoming more prevalent in the face of increased uncertainty and job insecurity, according to the Black Dog Institute.

Unemployment has risen to 6.2 per cent, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently confirming 594,300 jobs were lost across Australia in April – the largest on record. But that doesn't tell the whole story. “Around 2.7 million people (or one in five employed in March) either left employment or had their hours reduced between March and April,” according to the ABS. Some 6 million Australians are also accessing JobKeeper payments and 1.6 million are receiving the JobKeeper unemployment benefit, which suggests the unemployment rate could be much higher than what ABS figures suggest.

Steps are now being taken to improve Australia's mental health leadership in the face of such uncertainty. The Federal Government recently announced a $73 million mental health support package in response to coronavirus and has appointed the first Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, Associate Professor and Victoria’s Chief Psychiatrist Ruth Vine, to help plan Australia’s mental health response to the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, many experts are preparing for an increase in serious mental health issues or potential suicides. Past research has shown that during similar pandemics, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic, 25-33 per cent of the community experienced high levels of anxiety. The most common mental health and related issues associated with disease outbreaks include anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, panic, uncertainty and financial stress. People with pre-existing mental health and anxiety disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress, are most at risk of higher anxiety levels during pandemics, according to the Black Dog Institute.

The stress of self-isolating and working from home for a long period requires businesses to consider significant preventative planning around employee mental health. Speaking as part of a recent AGSM webinar on leading through a crisis: from coping to thriving, UNSW Business School experts said there are five steps business leaders should adopt to minimise the potential impact coronavirus pandemic can have on mental health.

Business leader presenting.jpg
The need for visionary leadership has become painfully obvious during the coronavirus pandemic. Image: Shutterstock

1. Understand the complexity of data on mental health during coronavirus 

Unlike data for new coronavirus infections, mental health researchers don’t have adequate data to understand the exact impact on mental health. “We don't know what the shape of the curve is in terms of mental health and whether it is reducing… we're flying blind,” said Professor Helen Christensen, Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute and Professor of Mental Health at UNSW, who presented as part of the AGSM webinar.

Although Black Dog Institute’s latest surveys found there were heightened levels of anxiety and distress within the community, suggesting people may require more support or access to mental health treatments in-person and online over the coming weeks and months, Professor Christensen said it is difficult to know exactly how many Australians require additional help.

She also raised another issue: many people are still struggling with the transition to an online working environment, or simply don’t have access to adequate broadband internet. The most recent data from the ABS shows that 2.5 million Australians are not online because of affordability issues, their location, or a lack of digital literacy.

This could be one of the many reasons why Australia's response to mental health during coronavirus has been much weaker than the physical health response. “We [Australia] marshalled coronavirus experts, we pulled together predictions around the shape of the curve, we looked at how scenarios could reduce physical health, but from a mental health perspective we were not so well prepared,” said Professor Christensen.

“It took us a long time to set up a mental health taskforce. For a long time, we didn't have a chief mental health officer like we do a chief medical officer, so we were pretty ill-prepared in being able to shift to an online environment," said Professor Christensen, who added that the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of population-based prevention is also extremely sparse. “We actually don't have strong evidence about what interventions we can implement at a public health level to ease the psychological distress of the community,” she said.

Employee being congratulated on hard work_Inline.jpg
Mental health leadership through the coronavirus crisis requires deeper engagement. Image: Shutterstock

2. Visionary leadership over excellent reactive leadership 

In stressful times when people are experiencing varying levels of uncertainty and anxiety, Professor Christensen said organisations "really need visionary leadership, rather than excellent reactive leadership: we need to be looking 400 rather than 100 metres ahead,” she said.

“We should all be doing mindfulness [and] physical exercises, but also prioritising prevention at a public health level in mental health and moving into a digital space where we can improve our health services so they're available all the time to people,” she said. This means having structures in place where people with the expertise and the necessary data to drive the best response ahead of time."

To address some of these issues, Professor Christensen recently joined 24 mental health experts setting out immediate priorities and longer-term strategies for mental health science research through the coronavirus pandemic. “Let's hope that we don't let this opportunity to transform our mental health system fall between our fingers in this type of process,” she added.

Their paper outlines ways to tackle the harmful impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health and calls for further action and research in this area in the global response to the crisis. They also argue that mobilisation now will ensure that evidence-based lessons are learned, which could better inform the future handling of global pandemics: for example, how to foster a rapid and coordinated response regarding health messaging from governments.

3. Engage with people on a fundamental level 

Organisations and business leaders also need to engage with people on a fundamental level by really thinking about identity, said Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School Professor Frederik Anseel, who also presented at the AGSM webinar. 

As a leader, he said this includes thinking about your own identity and how you see your “future work self”.

“Talk with people to try to create a vision of yourself,” recommended Professor Anseel, who suggested taking this quiz to discover your future work self – a measurement tool developed by Professor Anseel and colleagues. During times of stress and uncertainty, focusing on the future can be an effective tool for working through a challenging time

Learning mode_Inline-min.jpg
Being a good leader and helping others during the coronavirus pandemic requires fostering a growth mindset. Image: Shutterstock

“We actually do much better than we predict and we overestimate our emotions when adverse events are happening,” explained Professor Anseel. “There’s a lot of research showing that we might be better in coping with adverse events than we normally think. There's this famous quote from a Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who said: ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it’.”

But engaging with people on a deeper level also means having a more nuanced view of resilience. “Resilience is a process of recovery,” said Professor Anseel. “At some point, people will experience a crisis and burnout. While some people try to come back to work, it is difficult to predict who will recover," he said. 

Finally, if leaders are thinking about how they can help people cope in a crisis, Professor Anseel said it's "not always about tips and tricks" because "you need to engage with people on a very fundamental level and talk about their identity, what it means for them and to really think about the future" and to "have an open, honest and deep conversation".

4. Maintain your corporate athlete 

UNSW Business School’s Professor of Management Peter Heslin also presented at the AGSM webinar and explained leaders today have an especially difficult task because they are trying to support others through the pandemic while often facing many of the same personal challenges.

To help address this, he discussed how leaders can maintain their ‘corporate athlete’: “People are at their best when they routinely engage in rituals that support their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities,” he explained. Examples of such rituals include: 

  • Oscillating between sitting and standing; 
  • Setting time for and having an exercise program; 
  • Being gentle on yourself and others; 
  • Limiting your exposure to news; and 
  • Engaging in meditation, journaling, prayer, or service to other people. 

While these may be simple things that many of us recognise as essential, he said it is easy to forget about them in our own lives. “Devote time to challenging and wellbeing-sustaining tasks, enjoyable tasks throughout each day. Avoid getting bogged down in one type of task for too long by routinely engaging in all three,” said Professor Heslin. 

Woman exercising.jpg
Exercise could help improve your mental health and maintain corporate athlete through coronavirus. Image: Shutterstock

5. Be in learning mode 

Finally, Professor Heslin challenged everyone to strive to be in ‘learning mode’ about a particular ability or skill they would like to develop. This might be, for instance, a technical skill, listening more effectively, playing an instrument, or learning another language. 

Being in learning mode requires fostering a growth mindset about the ability or skill you are aiming to cultivate. To achieve this, he recommends the following five steps:

  1. Set goals to focus on developing proficiency in what you might enjoy rather than just doing what you're already good at;
  2. Assess your progress against personal milestones versus others’ progress or achievements; 
  3. Interpret setbacks as a need for better strategies and more practice, as opposed to diagnosing what you're not inherently good at; 
  4. Celebrate your persistent effort and progress; 
  5. Enjoy the process of learning.

For more information listen to the full AGSM webinar on leading through a crisis: from coping to thriving or visit the AGSM Virtual learning hub for virtual learning courses in leadership, management, digital transformation, strategy and change including Leading with Resilience. For more information on adapting and leading with agility please contact UNSW Business School’s Professor Frederik Anseel or for details about how to be in learning mode to forge a more sustainable career please contact Professor Peter Heslin. 


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy