The mind is not isolated from the world that it lives in.

The mind is not isolated from the world that it lives in.

As we map our road forward to a ‘COVID-normal’, what are we going to take with us and what will we leave behind?

This pandemic has hit pause on our routines and given us all a chance to reflect on the factors contributing to our wellbeing as individuals, organisations and as a society. We see cries for help to mental health hotlines spike, fears of domestic violence increase during iso and a general malaise of youth who were already struggling to envisage a bright future for themselves. Mental Health professionals are highlighting a secondary curve likely to escalate, that of mental health.

Last week I asked Dawn O’Neil AM, former CEO of both Beyond Blue and Lifeline, whether COVID19 was exacerbating or simply revealing our mental health issues? Dawn distilled over 20 years’ experience leading community mental health into a few hard-hitting points: 

  1. The difference between mental health and mental illness is still not properly acknowledged due to our choice of language
  2. The coping strategies we all have in place as we slide up and down the mental health spectrum have been disrupted by COVID-19, allowing for a new conversation
  3. The interconnectedness of mental health with our economic situation and our environment cannot be ignored

The difference between mental health and mental illness

“We are still not comfortable talking about mental illness. Mental Health is actually the absence of mental illness.” [Dawn O’Neil]

We know that Pre-COVID, mental illness statistics in developed countries were staggering. In Australia, one in five of us was already struggling with issues of mental illness (Royal Commission Interim report, 2019). Today, Chair of Beyond Blue Julia Guillard writes that ‘weekly contact volumes are now consistently about 40 percent higher than they were in the two months prior to the crisis’. She outlines some common themes, including ‘loneliness, exhaustion, job and financial worries, and family stress’ (SMH, 2020). Youth mental health service ReachOut has released new data showing visits to its online services have increased by 50 per cent compared to the same period in 2019,  equating to more than 120,000 additional people seeking help (9news, 2020). A joint statement issued by the Australian Medical Association and leading mental health advocates said the COVID-19 modelling indicates a likely 25 percent increase in suicides, with about 30 percent of those being young people (AMA, 2020). 

The trend is consistent globally, with a preliminary study in the US showing that post-COVID, participants were eight times as likely to screen positive for serious mental illness – 28%, compared to 3.4% in a comparable 2018 survey. Additionally, 70% of the 2020 participants met criteria for moderate to serious mental illness, compared with 22% in 2018 (The Conversation, 2020). In the UK, a preliminary study from The Academy of Medical Sciences shows people who felt that COVID-19 might threaten their livelihood – about 46% – said that they were now more depressed and enjoyed a lower quality of life (AMS, 2020).

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On March 29, Australia’s National Cabinet designated a $74 million package to boost mental health services. Right now, the COVID-19 mental-health strategy is dominated by concerns about an increase in deaths by suicide, a rise in the incidence of depression and possible neurological damage caused by the virus, and rightly so. But community psychologist and senior lecturer at London’s Institute for Global Health says that too often, reactive policy measures forget half the equation, ‘Labelling a condition doesn’t make the social challenges around it disappear’ says Rochelle Burgess, ‘we need to address the social and economic conditions that contribute to poor mental health’. Rochelle writes, ‘A woman who has lost her job and cannot feed her family will find little relief from a meditation app’ (Burgess, 2020). 

As the extent of mental illness in our society becomes more visible and is exacerbated by the pandemic, can we empower our mental health leaders to design more proactive and integrated strategies to support our mental health as a society, before illness becomes an issue? Chair of Beyond Blue, Julia Guillard advocates for the opportunity to adapt, saying, ‘we can swiftly design and implement reforms…workplaces are adapting, and governments are collaborating.” “That response doesn’t necessarily mean more of the same,” she said. “We must use this opportunity to change some of the structural and service gaps in the system, especially for where people live and where the biggest need is.” (Preiss, The Age, 2020)

Coping Strategies for mental health

“One of the strategies I love is thinking about is our hand, and how we care for something by wrapping our fingers around it. Having one strategy is not enough. To me, our five fingers represent the need to have five support strategies to help us stay mentally healthy.”

Dawn O’Neil points out that for many of us who would consider ourselves mentally healthy, COVID-19 has rendered our coping mechanisms null and void. Underlying issues of anxiety or depression that we may have normalised through routine coping strategies have been disrupted by COVID-19. What are the new strategies that we have put in place, and how will these serve us moving forward? 

For some of us, the absence of social life has been a source of despair, for others, a source of relief. The slow down on spend, likewise, has meant stress and uncertainty for many, yet the simplicity of life in #iso has revealed how accelerated our pace of consumption had become. The ability to work from home has increased pressure on relationships and frustration over productivity in some instances while in others, the absence of travel time and office politics has been a welcome change. In an interview with Diversity Council Australia, current Beyond Blue CEO, Georgie Harman, says as much anxiety exists today around the return to normal, as it does staying in lockdown (DCA, 2020).

If there is one thing COVID-19 has revealed about mental health, it is the inextricable link to environmental and economic health. Beyond the initial focus on hygiene and distancing measures that will dominate the immediate return to ‘COVID-normal’, how can workplaces harness the learnings of mass remote working to design a new strategy for wellbeing? How can we modify our use of technology and digital communications to drive engagement and productivity? And how do we update our approach to a more integrated preventative ecosystem necessary to achieve mental health?

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The ‘Five Finger Support Strategy’ model of wellbeing put forward by Dawn makes sense not only as a personal check-in, but as a reference point for government and company policies to take a multi-pronged and holistic approach to mental health. Dawn talks about ‘wrapping your hand around the problem’, and using our five fingers to cover off multiple approaches to the mental health of ourselves and others. She says these strategies will shift and change depending on the circumstance and challenges faced, the key point being the use of multiple approaches. To help individuals cope with social distancing measures, including working from home or self-isolation, tactics such as the STREAM checklist have emerged during COVID-19 (SANFL, 2020):

S – Social networking

Physical distancing is necessary, but it does not mean social networking cannot exist. Keep in touch with people through social media, phone calls or a text message.

T – Time out 

Take time out from each other when at home for long periods. This will help minimise the ongoing stress of being in a limited space with others.

R – Relaxation, mindfulness or yoga

Managing anxiety can be helped through breathing, muscular relaxation exercises, mindfulness training, dancing, singing and yoga.

E – Exercise and entertainment

If you have a space where you can exercise, that’s always a good way to burn off energy. Alternatively, catch up on some reading, streaming services, digital or board games, hobbies, playing music, etc.

A – Alternative thinking

Understand uncertainty will lead to heightened tension and stress. It’s often useful to think things through, even by talking to someone else, e.g. a friend or a counsellor. We are all in this together.

M – Mindful of others

Remember, this is a short-term situation and we can all get through if we work together. Maintain caring relationships. Never forget that simple acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves, the world and the future.

The circulation of models such as this, while by no means an exhaustive list, show our growing awareness as a community of the necessity for a holistic preventative approach to mental health and wellbeing. Yet still, many companies rely on access to EAP services as their key strategy for mental health. We know that while mental health costs Australian businesses $12.8billion annually (KPMG &Mental Health Australia, 2018), only 3.5% of employees utilise their EAP service (Society for Human Resource Management, 2019). How will businesses pivot their mental health strategies in COVID-normal?

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Addressing the fragile ecosystem of mental health, economic health and environmental health.

‘Leaders need to think about what is within our control, how can we impact?’ [Dawn O’Neil] 

How can business leaders develop a more nuanced approach to preventative mental health? A Black Dog Institute report highlights job insecurity and the perception of job insecurity produce a three-fold increase in rates of anxiety and depression (Black Dog Institute, 2020).

A UK study shows that pre-COVID19, parents were less likely to be experiencing mental distress than those without children. But by the end of April 2020, parents were more likely to be in distress than their childless peers (The Conversation, 2020). The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently declared climate change a health emergency, as the term ‘eco-anxiety’ entered the lexicon (The Conversation, 2019). The excessive amount of time we spend inside (estimated to be 92% in the developed world) also attributes significantly to poor mental health, via a condition called biophilia hypothesis (MIT Sloan Review, 2020). Findings show that when we are in closer contact with nature, we tend to experience greater vitality and willpower, feel a sense of mental clarity, and engage in increased helping behaviour. Conversely, when we don’t, findings indicate that we are more susceptible to stress, depression, and aggression. Given that anecdotally, COVID-19 has seen more people reporting appreciation of increased access to the outdoors, imagine the impact a return to the office may have on work performance if not addressed.

How can an integrated mental health approach practically take into account such a broad array of competing issues? Let us return to the ‘Five Finger Strategy Support’ exercise. 

Economic Health

In a time where increasingly, automation, augmentation, digital literacy and the gig economy dominate dialogue around the new world order, how are we addressing our employee’s certainty about their future career paths, their technical relevance and enduring skillset? Immediately, we see that workforce design and reskilling plans dove-tail into the organisational mental health strategy.

Social Health

As we understand the competitive benefits of agile teams, adaptive mindsets, psychological safety and diverse points of view, we see how social identity and social order contribute to mental health. COVID-19 has shown us that the lives we have built, the identities we wear, the behaviours that define us are more flexible than they seem. We can change! How will this enable leaders across the business step up and see themselves as cross-functional change agents in the new normal? On the flip side, will our organisations adopt flexibility in terms of internal social order? Can we stagger our workforces to reflect the individual identities and competing demands of our employees?

Environmental Health

As the issue of climate change returns to centre stage, how might we instil in our company purpose, our strategy and in our teams a direct connection with the environment? How does our social license to operate impact on the mental wellbeing of our people? Are volunteer days encouraged? Is there an avenue for employees to have company support for social or environmental initiatives? As impact investing becomes a trend, these questions will grow in significance.

Physical Health

When it comes to the physical environment of the workplace, how do we incorporate the human reality of air, light, water and stimulation into the mix? Are we innovating human interactions to capitalise on the natural world in our working lives? Can outdoor spaces become a part of the office landscape? How are we altering the timing, pace and duration of work blocks to optimise the employee experience? Will exercise breaks, remote working and walking meetings become the norm? Does the clock-on, clock-off industrial mindset give way to a new evolution of outcome over output? And if so, how are we leveraging the opportunity to combine mental health and productivity measures?

Cognitive Health

As learning, unlearning and relearning become an integrated part of our working lives, how will we harness the perspective COVID-19 has granted us in terms of future skills? An astonishing number of online education platforms have opened their access for employees during COVID-19. Has your organisation supported employees to take initiative in rethinking their own value proposition for the future? Should employees be encouraged to actively reframe and redesign their roles to play to new skills and sustainable value creation? If so, the mental health impact of a renewed sense of purpose and job security could be a game-changer.

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The possible reconfiguration of mental health strategies are endless and the integrated approach, essential. The increased awareness of coping strategies across the population has opened the door for a broader conversation. The shared experience of isolation during a health crisis presents a unique opportunity to talk collectively about preventative mental health strategies. Georgie Harman of Beyond Blue says, ‘we have a moment in history for the structural reform, policy reform and investment reform of mental health services… we must not go back in time’ (Georgie Harman, DCA webinar, 11.05.20).

The mind is not isolated from the world that it lives in. 

And the more we look at mental illness in isolation, the less likely we are to enable our own mental health as a society.

What should we do when every decision is a tough decision?

What should we do when every decision is a tough decision?

And every day feels the same?

When I sat down to chat with renowned transformation strategist, Ron Gauci, we were discussing the mindset leaders need to cultivate in order to turn crisis-imposed business disruption into crisis-led business transformation. Ron’s practical and experienced-based tips seem to have struck a chord with the LinkedIn family and so this insights paper seeks to break down the information into actionable steps to take when every decision feels difficult.

  1. Turn data into positive action.
  2. Listen with empathy. Communicate with fact.
  3. Formulate a strategy and communicate your plan.

Turn data into positive action.

“Never waste a crisis” says Ron, emphasising that we have one chance to earn and secure the trust of our people. And one chance to channel uncertainty away from panic and into opportunity. Leaders will be revealed in moments of stress and uncertainty, and for those heading up organisations, a situation of stress cannot mean being stressed. “We need to be making our best decisions under stress.”

This sounds logical in practice, however for many leaders around the world right now, every decision is a tough decision and every day is more of the same. The extended timeframe of the COVID-19 health pandemic and subsequent vacuum of economic progress means that war-time resilience is being called for. The only way we will collectively navigate through this is to turn data into positive action.

When we enter a crisis, it is critical to clear our minds of assumptions and understand the extent of the problem. Almost immediately, we embark on an exhaustive learning process taking in constantly updated information from multiple conflicting sources. On a grand scale, the global population has been called on to lead in this way. Collectively, we have taken a disease predicted by epidemiologists to be capable of a 10% (or higher) death toll, down to 6% (in the US) and well below that in other countries like Australia and New Zealand. Data has been crucial at every point of these public responses- from tracking infection rates to monitoring ICU admissions, undertaking predictive modelling of different interventions (and then testing against hard data post-implementation) and contact tracing those with positive covid diagnoses to contain the spread. When humans are given the data, we naturally draw insight. As leaders, we must listen with empathy but communicate with fact. This balances out the counterintuitive reality that information (even with negative implications) makes us feel calmer. Leaders have a responsibility to remove themselves from emotion and panic when it comes to decision-making.

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Listen with empathy.

Communicate with fact.

What happens when leaders allow emotion to fuse with information in their messaging? We do not need to look far to witness examples of how contradictory messaging by leaders affects the population. Whether we look at the closing (and reopening) of schools across Australia, the guidance about whether or not face masks were useful by WHO or the “Liberate our states” phenomenon in America, a leader who separates data from action strikes the heart of a constituent at their most vulnerable.

In crisis, empathy will prove a critical competitive advantage for any leader. Authenticity is important at all times but in situations of heightened sensitivity, there’s a premium on it. According to studies carried out by Development Dimensions International (DDI), empathy is the biggest single leadership skill needed to drive loyalty, engagement and innovation. Dianne Crampton at Gonzaga University found that “Empathy is a universal team value that promotes high commitment and cooperation” (Fast Company, 2018). Empathy from leaders requires perspective. When every day feels like the next, how are we finding time to recharge and separate emotion from fact?

Ron argues that COVID-19 has taken away leaders’ natural calibration time. While plane travel or time commuting may have served as an opportunity to synthesise multiple data points and frequently changing data sets, today we need to carve out “big picture” time with a lighter footprint. For example, taking a walk without your device in tow, or listening to music that provides a sense of space. Working from home, blurred lines and back-to-back zoom schedules will lead to information overload. “Leadership is a lonely role,” says Ron. We each need to rely on our personal cabinet – a circle of experts who bring diverse perspectives – and trust our own judgment. The critical questions to ask ourselves? “What do I know in my gut? What is the current data telling me? How can I turn this into a positive action?”

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Formulate a strategy.

Articulate your plan.

Nothing grows while you’re choking it”. Ron acknowledges the easiest thing to do in crisis is to cut costs. However, the need for transformation to a new way of working was a pre-existing condition for many organisations before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Macro timeframes must be developed in? the context of today’s decisions. How can we as leaders think simultaneously through putting out short-term fires while fanning long-term sparks?

Action or reaction? Tracking a path forward in a changing landscape can seem like a balance between planning for the worst and hoping for the best. This is why Ron advocates for the overlaying of multiple decision-making frameworks to pick and choose strategies based on emergent conditions.

Though many of these will be familiar to you, here are a few decision-making frameworks that could help:

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30/60/90-day time horizons

The well-used 30/60/90-day plan is a simple and useful tool for formulating strategy from a growth mindset, gaining stakeholder buy-in and articulating forward planning to the team. The use of a familiar format means that while the immediate 30 days gives people a level of security, the 60-day horizons allow for alterations as emergent conditions arise, and the 90-day reference point retains a sense of purpose and future vision, needing to keep momentum. Strategist Mark Johnson describes the importance of ‘leading from the future’ in his book ‘How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth’ stating, ‘Future-back is both a process and a way of thinking that involves starting with a vision of a future state and working your way backwards to reverse engineer your path to it.’ (Read more)

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SWOT analysis

Often used as a constant check-in along the way rather than a mechanism on its own, the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat framework can be a good exercise to get us thinking outside the box and joining the dots. Where are the new revenue opportunities? How is our business able to exist virtually? Encouraging our teams to think of threats and opportunities hand in hand when coming up with new solutions is a great way to foster innovation as a knee-jerk response in times of crisis. (Read more)

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Scenario planning

As we found talking to ADF veteran, Emma Grigson, scenario planning will play into agile strategy formulation across financial management, product design, workforce mapping and supply chain innovation. The definition of scenario planning is identifying a specific set of uncertainties, different “realities” of what might happen in the future of your business” (Mariton, March 2020). Each scenario should contain just enough detail to assess the likely success or failure of the strategic option. Scenarios may be built around one single question or sets of variables. These different realities could probe economic outcomes, product demand, supply chain resilience, competition manoeuvres, technology adoption, geopolitical instability, etc. Scenario planning reiterates that we will come through this uncertainty, but focusses energy on how we emerge when all is said and done. (Read more)

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Issues-based ethical decision-making

Ethical decision-making frameworks are useful in shifting our focus to the macro effect of our day-to-day decisions. Perhaps we need to fundamentally shift how we think of growth for example? An ethical dilemma is an instance where opposing personal and professional values are perfectly balanced. The current crisis is playing out between the moral imperative of health vs economy. Hopefully, as we turn our minds to designing a new normal, we will pause to weigh up economy vs climate in a more concerted way. When every decision is a tough decision, an ethical approach acknowledges that we cannot control perfect outcomes however we can control accountability in trying to achieve them. (Read more)

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Thinking fast and slow

Based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, the process of thinking fast/thinking slow seeks to elucidate our two-systems approach to decision-making. One method occurs at a more intuitive level, while the other requires greater critical thinking at a statistical level – automatic and controlled decision-making if you like. Which process do you find yourself using? The critical point is awareness. When decision-making under pressure, it can be tempting to perpetuate our own unconscious biases. However, the situation distinctly calls for a new interpretation of data. (Read more)

Ron’s point in the overlaying of multiple decision-making models in order to arrive at a strategy and communicable plan, I believe, is three-fold. Multiple modelling moves us away from our comfort zone and into the courage zone; the place where leaders do their best work. The layered effect neutralises incorrect or irrelevant data points while reinforcing those that consistently underpin the situation. And finally, we are able to give a firm basis to our stakeholders for believing in our plan. As Ron says, “people trust me because a) they see I have a plan, b) the plan sounds reasonable, and c) they know I’ve navigated these situations before and feel confident in my ability to see it through”.

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The most important sustainable value is you.

Finally, as leaders who are required to sort emotion from fact, data from diatribe and intuition from statistical analysis, what new habits are we building for ourselves during COVID-19? As many of us find a new rhythm juggling personal relationships with conference calls, home-schooling schedules with additional crisis response activities and team wellbeing with our own physical and mental relief, how are we coping?

The advice from experts is to retain as much routine and structure as possible. However, I wonder if this approach in itself misses the opportunity to innovate? How many of us have felt for a long time that we are working to someone else’s schedule? Owned by necessity rather than optimal working rhythms. I would encourage us all to take this opportunity to reimagine our ways of working. Can we carve out some hours to do the deep concentration work? Can we take the opportunity of working from home to cultivate a rhythm of frequent micro-meditations? Are we leveraging the proximity to kitchens, closets and couches to be more attentive to our basic needs throughout the busy working day? Can we steal more precious moments with loved ones than the rhythm of our usual 9-5 (or longer!) allowed us?

When every day feels the same, and the economic outlook may require sustained pressure, how do we sustain ourselves?