indicatorAdvice for Alberta businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coping through COVID-19: Business and mental health in times of crisis

By ATB Financial 21 April 2020 6 min read

Managing a business carries with it many hurdles, from managing teams effectively to sourcing funding to launching products on time. What is often less addressed within the bustle of running a business, though, is the all-important consideration of mental health and well-being.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the world, many business owners are struggling with distress around potentially losing their businesses. For some, businesses have been transitioned through several generations and represent not only livelihood, but a sense of identity. For those that are able to survive through months of steep downtown, there is also the new pressure to come out of the other side of the outbreak with renewed vigor. Such impactful issues undoubtedly weigh heavily on the minds of many business owners and leaders across Alberta and Canada, and dealing with such pressure can certainly fracture one’s resiliency.

How can business leaders develop coping strategies to manage mental health effectively while also prioritizing the personal well-being of the team members throughout their organization? What are the warning signs for executives to look out for if they believe employees may be enduring mental-health battles but have been silent about them? And what kind of resources should be made available to those who feel the fog of depression or severe stress rolling in?

The statistics behind mental health and business owners

Even before Covid-19 added another layer of stress to businesses large and small, Canadian business owners were more likely to face mental health issues frequently. A major report from the Canadian Mental Health Institute found that three out of five entrepreneurs they surveyed felt depressed at least once a week. Also, more than half (54 per cent) of the entrepreneurs reported that stress impacted their level of concentration at work.

A 2018 survey by ATB of Alberta businesses found that 71 per cent of respondents “typically place the needs of their business ahead of their personal needs.”

Business owners notoriously embrace risk and being open to failure is part of their persona, says Kerilee Snatenchuk, Director of People and Culture at ATB. “This is where boundaries become important,” she goes on to say, “and setting those boundaries between your personal life and the business life is important even before getting that first customer.”

The business of work-life balance

For business owners who are also parents, there is also the added stress of navigating the balance between business and parenting needs. That kind of line-division could be shaped in a few ways, but several well-known strategies include separating home life from workplace obligations by purposefully scheduling a break time, and making time to connect (albeit through social distancing) for after-work friends and relationships.

Also, taking on more than you can handle could lead to overwork and burnout and eventually high levels of anxiety. If you’re ever felt your chest constrict from being overloaded by a task you were not going to finish on time, imagine facing that pain regularly and you’re close to realizing what struggling with an issue that can’t be solved by a magic wand.

Delegating effectively is critical for business leaders who want to still propel their business forward but want to make sure they don’t carry the load on their already-strained backs.

Early warning signs behind mental health challenges

It’s also important for leaders to be aware of the signals their staff may be passing along to them, intentionally or not, that reveal mental health issues. Snatenchuk realizes that checking in with in-office staff may not be as easy during months of remote work sparked by, say, a recent pandemic, but it still has to be done, albeit in a more digitally-savvy way.

“If there is a notable behavior change in someone, you could see that even in a video-conference meeting, for example,” she notes. “Are they not smiling or not looking well-dressed? Do they look nervous or are they talking about anything but work, perhaps externalizing their own fears in some way?”

Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, if your company staff usually dresses casually in the office pre-remote work and suddenly an employee comes into a Google Hangout meeting with a suit and tie, “that may tell you too that something is off,” Snatenchuk adds.

If managers suspect an employee is struggling, they need to then spend one-on-one time with the employee who may prefer to keep quiet about their problems. It’s not about throwing questions at this employee until the right query breaks open a confession, but about listening compassionately and offering resources and trained staff that can be available to someone who will reach out to help when they’re ready.

Mental health strategies are a business priority

When Michael Tighe, who leads the communications and design firm Solid, told his story of facing depression to ATB in 2018, he shared a key piece of advice he learned during his ordeal: A successful business isn’t measured by its leaders standing up to the tidal waves of challenges and part the seas time after time.

“To me, what it really means is your ability to bend and not break,” he said.

Tighe is alluding to a work-life balance that enables a healthy career and a nurturing home life. It isn’t always easy to lean into the punches a new obstacle may throw at you, so business owners not only have to look out for how they manage their mental health but they should also be strategizing ways to offer their workforce resources and groups they may need to access.

Snatenchuk suggests business owners develop support networks designed to lead initiatives related to mental health education. At ATB, she notes how the company formed an employee resource group called the Mental Health Action team whose 600 members meet regularly to “discuss grassroots issues in mental health facing the organization, and also provide input on potential ways to address these issues.”

Going hand-in-hand with such policy-making is training, and not just one-off sessions for all hands on deck to get the basics on mental health challenges. Training should be comprehensive and educate business units on the right approaches for the right situation, which may call for interactive role-playing or modeling.

It’s ideal if participants can share best practices and continue developing as resource-equipped active listeners who understand the needs of employees undergoing mental health challenges. New triggers may arise, like we’ve seen with public health crises and the grief and anxiety accompanying them.

Leading your team through commitment to mental wellness

Businesses could boost rates of employee-manager relationships related to addressing mental health problems by communicating the company’s commitment to these concerns by running interoffice campaigns, both online and offline. Also, some firms have set up chat room Q&A sessions for anonymous employees to ask questions to qualified professionals on the other end of the keyboard.

By being open, as well, on the balance sheet, entrepreneurs can tell shareholders, investors and their employees how dedicated they are to promoting a forward-thinking approach to mental wellbeing. As TechCrunch reporter Jake Chapman writes, “Founders need to include a line item in their P&L for wellness or self-care. Budgets are moral documents and they set the priorities of a company. If there is no line item for supporting the mental/physical/emotional well-being of the founders and employees, then the company will be devoid of the resources to offer this type of support.”

The cost of mental health services may be a significant barrier for smaller businesses but it still should never be neglected outright, especially in an era where a pandemic is taking a toll on Canadians' mental health.

Covid-19 may have pushed the conversation of mental health struggles to the front-burner of the business world, but it’s an important conversation that should always be addressed holistically throughout an organization. For business owners and leaders looking for individualized support or how to integrate mental health initiatives throughout their organizations, the Canadian Mental Health Association can be a great place to access the right insights, tools and resources to get started.

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