It’s no secret that the COVID pandemic has, and continues to take its toll on nearly every facet of our lives. Pervasive social inequities, childcare, and homeschooling demands are just a few of the things that have created even greater pressure on our already stress-filled work lives. While many companies and organizations have attempted to rise to the occasion by offering stress reduction programs and additional leadership training there continues to be a sense of unrelenting pressure as employees across all industries have hit the pandemic wall. 

The employee mental wellness crisis isn’t coming sometime off in the future, it’s here now. The Harvard Business Review’s current series on employee burnout has highlighted continually alarming trends, including that 89% of their survey respondents say that their work lives are getting worse and 85% report that their well-being has declined. According to a recent survey conducted by the Global Leadership Forecast, 86% of high-potential employees feel “used up” at the end of the workday. 66% of Human Resources professionals feel the same and about 44% of those leaders are considering changing companies.

Burnout Isn’t a Single Source Issue.

Burnout isn’t a single source issue but rather a confluence of circumstances flowing from both organizational demands as well as employee’s own mental wellness levels. To be clear, it doesn’t matter how “well” an employee’s mental capacities are if the organization in which they are employed creates unsustainable workloads and doesn’t recognize them as being valuable. In turn, what is an employee’s responsibility in making their own needs known and taking care of themselves? In effect, an organization and the people who work within it create a system in which they are interdependent on one another, and the mental wellness levels of the one becomes the mental wellness levels of them both. 

What is Mental Wellness?

What is mental wellness? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Whereas mental health is defined as “a state”, at Motivation Beyond Measure we see mental wellness as more dynamic including those things that we might be, do, and have that promote the state of well-being defined as mental health. From the statistics cited above, it is now obvious that the majority of employees are likely feeling neither fully mentally healthy or well. 

The Very First Thing to Do

In the case of any crisis, the very first thing to do is to get to safety. In many cases, the single act of finding safety physically, psychologically, and emotionally will not only relieve the immediate trauma but also provide room to more efficiently assess the severity of the problem. This is more than just stress reduction and employee wellness programs; safety is the foundation of everything else we do, and how we do it. A perception of psychological safety is foundational not only to team performance but to a person’s capacity to simply attend and be present. 

Behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory highlights that while our lower brain centers are constantly recognizing threats in the environment our higher brain centers are working to either validate or refute those environmental cues. Just to be clear, we seek signs of the threat first unless refuted by signals of safety. What might those signals of safety be? And how can leaders and managers benefit from relating such signals?

Two Key Issues Compounding the Mental Wellness Crisis

Along with the whole pandemic, there have been two key issues compounding this mental wellness crisis. The first is masks. Hang on… yes, masks are vitally important in minimizing the spread of the coronavirus, and the double-edged sword is that they cover our faces.

Let’s return to the Polyvagal Theory. According to Stephen Porges, an important function of the Vagus Nerve is to slow down our nervous systems, helping us feel calmer and more centered, in other words, safe. Part of the Vagus nerve connects to our face, throat, heart, and middle ear making it a key player in our facial expressions and vocal tones. As humans, when we feel threatened, which we do the majority of the time, the first place we will look to potentially invalidate that threat is at other people’s faces. If we are met with a supportive and caring expression then the threat is minimized. If we are met with a blank or unreceptive expression then the threat is validated and a stress response is activated in our bodies. To this point, wearing masks has been shown to alter the way that people perceive other’s emotions. 

The second issue contributing to a perceived safety gap is the widespread remote working situation, including social distancing. This is a large and complex topic that can’t be easily distilled down, however, let’s focus again on the fact that as humans we are constantly scanning for subtle cues from others that relate, we are safe, and not in fact in danger as our lower brain centers would default to. Similar to masks, while video conferencing has afforded us a layer of safety by not transmitting coronavirus it has also created environments in which we are less likely to pick up on those reassuring subtle cues, like a quickly turned up mouth or flash of concern in the eyes. In addition, increased use of email and text, without the corresponding physical signs of intent tend to contribute to more misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

While they are necessary, the workplace shifts to mask-wearing, video conferencing, as well as increased email and text communication are seriously compounding the mental wellness of people working in organizations by disadvantaging our evolutionary strategy for validating safety. So, what can leaders and managers do short of breaking all the public health guidelines?

Leaders Must Find Their Voices

If leaders are serious about promoting psychologically safe work environments then they must learn to find their voices. One last look at Polyvagal Theory reminds us that the Vagus nerve connects to the throat and middle ear, effectively giving us an additional method of validating a look of safety in someone’s face with vocal changes that match. In the absence of clear facial expressions, vocal tones that project empathy and support can be highly effective. Imagine how you may vocally express concern for a loved one or even a child. The words themselves may be different, but the tones behind the words validate safety. It’s also important to consider that the video medium dampens normal emotion expression to subtle and subtle to non-existent. When conveying supportive emotions and gestures via video it pays extra dividends to slightly exaggerate your smiles, nods, and vocal tones. By implementing these simple tips, leaders and managers may not win an Oscar, but will certainly bring a bit of safety into what feels to many like an unsafe world. 

-Brian Trzaskos, President and Director of Education, Motivation Beyond Measure