After months of working from home, most teams have figured out loads of productivity hacks and probably even become masters of the mute button. But project leaders shouldn’t ignore the tremendous toll the pandemic is taking on the mental health of their teams. An October report by the World Health Organization found that COVID-19 has disrupted critical mental health, neurological and substance abuse services in 93 percent of countries, even as demand soars. And a November survey by McKinsey found 62 percent of employees around the world consider mental health issues a challenge. Women, LGBTQ+ employees, people of color and those in developing markets were most likely to report they’re struggling.
We asked four project leaders to share how they build a support infrastructure and protect the well-being of their teams.
Lead With Transparency
Being honest and open can soften the sharp edges of economic uncertainty. When COVID-19 forced MacroHealth to focus on markets less affected by the virus, the leadership team showed all its cards, explaining that while the move would impact short-term growth, it would not jeopardize jobs. That kind of transparency can help ease anxiety, says Sahar Kanani, PMP, director, program management, MacroHealth, Vancouver, Canada.
“When team members aren’t stressed about their job security, they can continue to focus on quality work and remain productive,” she says. “I cannot emphasize enough the impact this reassurance had on the team’s mental well-being and its day-to-day engagement and performance.”
When the abrupt shift to working from home turned into the norm, many team members discovered how small inconveniences could blossom into larger frustrations. Having to simultaneously juggle work and day-to-day tasks like caring for elderly parents or helping children navigate virtual school can overburden team members, says Corinna Martinez, PMP, former senior project manager at IT firm DXC Technology, Sacramento, California, USA.
To provide a relief valve, she goes beyond the standard check-ins, carving out time to simply listen—giving team members a platform to talk through challenges as work and life intersect.
“I’ve spent many hours on the phone and online, talking to folks about their fears and frustrations,” she says. “And as a project manager, I made sure to reach out to not only my team members, but other project managers and staff as well.”
While such conversations can’t immediately solve all of the team’s frustrations, Martinez says, they can increase a sense of connection.
The virtual work environment can cause the boundaries between work and home to blur—leading many to ponder that new normal question: Are you working at home or living at work? A study by Microsoft found one-third of remote workers say the lack of separation between work and life is negatively impacting their well-being.
Helping team members prioritize work tasks can help them create a buffer and better handle at-home stressors.
“We’ve tried to have an open conversation and give people the space to deal with those issues,” says Marcel Ekkel, program director at SynergySynQ Ltd., Hong Kong, China. “In many cases, we had to force people to go offline and spend time with family. It was too easy to be glued to the screen and headphones.”
Turn Feedback Into Support
Gathering a steady stream of feedback on team well-being can nip problems in the bud and help organizations and their project leaders be proactive in promoting mental health.
At mBank S.A. in Warsaw, Poland, team members are asked to complete periodical surveys. Armed with that data, management then meets to “talk through the most important issues and introduce improvement actions,” says Michal Raczka, PMP, IT director.
To maintain team cohesion, leaders found ways to celebrate successes—organizing evening virtual happy hours, complete with food delivered directly to people’s homes. “It’s a very good opportunity to talk about things other than work and keep relationships strong,” he says.
No workplace program can take the place of professional mental health services. But it’s up to project leaders to help quell some of the stress and anxiety that threaten to consume current teams. — Jen Thomas