You don’t have to flip the table to start talking about this, to start making things a little bit better. ~Scott Tran

In the last few years, companies have made great strides in speaking more about mental health. As companies, we’ve been asking about it and providing more support. As leaders, we’ve advocated for the policies that help.

Then the pandemic hit, tensions in the US rose over racial inequality, the election, and natural disasters. In short, our lives have changed. Statistics show that we’re very stressed and not having a great year. One study showed 42% of us report declined mental health. 

To get an idea of how members of Support Driven are handling all the changes, and learn what is and isn’t working, we surveyed our members. What emerged from the survey is that support leaders are quite supportive. Encouragingly, much of what is working does not involve large, complicated initiatives with sign off from everyone. Small gestures have a large impact. But, it’s also clear there is more to do.

How has the pandemic affected you and your team?

Personally, I’m a brand new manager and it’s been tough! Thankfully have a great team but trying to learn how to do it all as we’re rapidly scaling hasn’t been easy. There have been some weeks where I feel like I have no energy to make headway, and then I feel bad for letting the team down.

“It’s for sure impacted all of us! I think a mixture of pandemic and other things happening in the US right now are just weighing us all down. My theory is that support or customer facing roles tend to be particularly empathetic, and the toll is heavy when you have to be chipper with your team + users both.”

“There have been some weeks where I feel like I have no energy to make headway, and then I feel bad for letting the team down.”

“The beginning of the pandemic was stressful. Mostly not knowing what to expect, all pilots and sales meetings got cancelled. And even though we were used to working remotely, being forced to work from home took some time to get used to.”

We’ve had huge challenges keeping people feeling connected with part of the team remote, part furloughed, part office based and fully remote at various times over the last few months. It’s a challenge on a practical level to disseminate important information and we’ve had to implement some new processes to overcome this.

Trying to do everything in a new way, under new stressors, with new tools, is a lot to take in. Watching out for your team’s and your own mental health on top of it all often feels like too much. Articles with click-bait titles like “20 things you must do now to be a great leader” certainly add to the feelings of guilt. Some of our respondents expressed they are left not knowing where to start. Others said they didn’t even know how to bring up the topic of mental health. There are some areas to focus on for maximum impact.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Says these are risks to Mental Health in the workplace:

  • inadequate health and safety policies;

  • poor communication and management practices;

  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;

  • low levels of support for employees;

  • inflexible working hours; and

  • unclear tasks or organizational objectives.

Knowing what the risks are gives a solid starting point for trying something. In our survey, small and large ways to meet the above needs were certainly recurring themes.

What are you doing for your and your team’s mental health and motivation?

We talk openly about it – we don’t shy away from the fact that this year has been tremendously difficult. That’s just the truth, so we discuss it openly. It helps when we know we’re all facing this together and we have each other’s backs.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and talking to friends for mental health and motivation. I’m sort of a 1-person team, so I haven’t needed to motivate and care for other members of a team, but it has certainly been challenging for me personally. Finding motivation is difficult and I’m generally a very motivated person!

Luckily our HR has done some great things – offering more extended time off, giving a stipend for education, weekly happy hour. Slack channels for mental health. We do a support happy hour every 2 weeks and I try to do a fun activity every so often – things like art while sitting on Zoom can take away that Zoom fatigue and give you something fun to do as a group.

We’re a tight knit group and we really try to listen to what we need. I think for us ensuring everyone can work as flexible as needed for their individual needs is super important. Each team is stepping up to make sure everyone is working the hours they need to support both the team and their own mental health.

Trying to let the team know that the business is listening to mental health concerns and are here to help. We have 2 work therapists who the team can book into speak to. As a manager, I’m trying to remain as upbeat as possible in whole team meetings, too.

We have an employee assistance program as a benefit and are encouraging the team to utilise it. We’ve encouraged personal OKR’s for the whole company this quarter, the idea being that setting a goal and making steps to achieving it will help people regain a small sense of control at a time when so much is out of their control.

How do you talk to your team about mental health and mental health struggles?

A common response to this question was just “We don’t.” But encouragingly, many teams are talking.

I personally have ADHD and have made my team aware of this. I want them to know that sometimes I might get on a tangent and not be succinct, so they can let me know if it’s not jiving with their learning. I hope this opens up the space for them to be more upfront. I’ve had deeper chats with some of them but this is a good flag that it’d be good to be more explicit with things like “it’s okay to take a mental health day even if you aren’t sick”
We keep all lines of communication open, at all times. We openly say “mental health.” We encourage time off. Mental health is something we all face – differently – and we think it’s important to meet everyone wherever they are. It never ends. It requires constant care and support. We talk about it in Slack, in email, in our company policies, in our time off tool. It’s simply a part of life around here, as it should be.
We have webinars for all employees about mental health, so we talk about this there. And, also, sometimes I mention this on our regular meeting
Honestly and openly – all my team know that I regularly speak to a therapist, that people within the company have had struggles and what things are in place to help support them where possible.
Our CEO is always very open about his mental health with the company as a whole, we have open discussions where anyone can raise their concerns. Mostly individuals choose to raise any issues one on one with their line manager and may be referred to one of our mental health first aiders.

What hasn’t worked?

We’ve all tried something that didn’t go so well. One of the wonderful things about our support community is being able to learn from each other. We decided to ask what you’ve tried that wasn’t successful. It do seem to be some themes to things that didn’t stick.

Time off right now is a little tricky.

We thought about requiring time off, but received some feedback that time off is actually more difficult for some people. They’d rather have something scheduled rather than be home and focused on the pandemic or something else.

So, we’re not requiring it – we’re just advocating for it when needed. A lot of folx do need that actual space away from work to decompress, and others don’t. Keeping the options open is the most important factor I’ve learned this year.

As an example, for our upcoming Breather Week we’re encouraging our team to take the time off, but that’s just one option. Other options will be hang-out time with the team, having remote lunch together, etc.

I tried to create new projects for myself within my role, but it didn’t really work because I found myself very uninterested in them, unable to move forward with them, etc. Our company revenue hit quite a low point the first several months of the pandemic and my job became very slow. There suddenly wasn’t a whole lot for me to do and I was looking to find personal fulfillment in my job, which didn’t work. Once I realized that and I started finding fulfillment outside of work, I felt much better.
We created a #watercooler channel in Slack and had more spontaneous video calls to see each other and just chat for a bit. We somehow just stopped doing it, I think it was too disruptive when you’re focused.
I said that we should have a bi-weekly video hangout to just catch up, but we haven’t stuck to it! As the leader of a team, there’s a pressure to ‘hide’ any negativity I personally feel from the team, and some weeks, it’s difficult to keep that up so talking less face to face can be less draining.
Social rooms in Zoom. Perhaps too distracting?
Zoom quizzes, forced fun doesn’t go down well.
Forced fun. Disruption. Zoom burnout. Trying to juggle more things when stuff is hard often feels like just another task. When we refocus on the previous list from the WHO addressing the risks to mental health, it becomes clear that the basics are incredibly powerful. How are you communicating with your team? How are you giving space for anyone to raise concerns? What are you doing to ensure everyone feels like someone cares?

A manager’s job is to meet their employees where they are and help lift them up

Companies should be looking at ways to train people managers to recognize signs, and give them tools for advocating for their employees. Start by talking about mental health. Leadership always requires skills and training, and this is even more important during times of crises. Lisa Hunt, software engineer at Geckoboard, says,

“I genuinely think all managers should have training on the correct way to handle mental health issues and how to adapt their style for employees who need it (Correct for the employee, not for the bottom line). A manager’s job is to meet their employees where they are and help lift them up. That should be why they’re paid more than the person being managed.”

The longest journey begins with a simple step. As Scott is quoted in the opening of the article, you don’t have to make a huge fuss. Start small. Make a simple change. Reach out and ask honestly how someone is doing. Get out of the habit of responding with “Fine” when friends and teammates ask after your own mental health. Small steps will build a new culture of openness and compassion. We may find that with each other, we might just make it through this year and beyond.

To get more ideas on supporting mental health, join Sarah’s breakout session on mental health at Refresh 2020 on October 27th!


Many of the links in this article have excellent resources for talking to your team and getting support. Some others:

Mental Health First Aid Training

8 Ways Managers Can Support Employees Mental Health

CDC Workplace Health Resource Center

Crisis Text Line
Or text HOME to 741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor

Sarah Betts is a customer support professional, speaker, writer, and member of the Support Driven community. She believes mental health awareness and support are essential to doing good work in customer support. Sarah lives with her family in Oregon and enjoys cooking, crafting, remodeling, and keeping up with her rapidly growing kids.
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