How bosses can help staff boost their mental health in lockdown

08 March 2021 8 min. read

As the pandemic looks set to continue deep into 2021, building emotional flexibility and engaging the workforce in long-term planning will be key factors in helping businesses maintain robust mental health amongst staff. In a virtual workshop and discussion on the Neuroscience of the Covid-19 crisis hosted by Eden McCallum, leadership development and transformation expert Cristina Escallon expanded on the topic.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, consulting firm Eden McCallum has released a series of updates revealing how the sentiment of European business leaders has changed over the course of 2020’s lockdowns. Initially, many bosses feared that they would face declines in productivity with staff forced to work remotely, as they would find it less easy to hold them accountable for their activities.

Throughout the year, this position shifted with the realisation that many staff’s productivity had actually improved without the need to contend with lengthy commutes, morning routines, or the need to be physically present for team meetings. However, increasingly, business leaders became concerned that their employees’ communication, collaboration and motivation were being negatively impacted by the continued pandemic – even if their output had not been reduced.

How bosses can help staff boost their mental health in lockdown

According to independent consultant Cristina Escallon, the founder of CES Consulting, our experience with the pandemic can be mapped onto the trauma curve. Speaking at a virtual event organised by Eden McCallum, Escallon explained that the human psyche typically goes through several predictable stages when dealing with a traumatic event.

“First the brain experiences a ‘heroic’ phase: something bad has happened, but everyone starts rallying around you or coming together. At the start of the pandemic, we saw people applauding NHS staff, and coming together as a community in meaningful ways, helping neighbours, which resulted in an ‘emotional high’ for many. After that ‘honeymoon’ period, we started to realise that the pandemic was not going away that soon, and some things might change permanently.”

“This in turn saw us enter a phase of disillusionment, which has its peaks and troughs, as was seen in the last third of 2020. In the final phase, we integrate what has happened, accept the situation and enter a reconstruction phase,” Escallon said.

Interacting with the attendees, Escallon asked the audience to plot which stage they felt they were in – with the majority feeling they were in reconstruction, alongside a large portion still in disillusionment. This represents a noticeable shift since the last webinar held with Eden McCallum in December.

Much of the new positivity seems to have coincided with the certification of a Covid-19 vaccine, and the commencing of its distribution at the turn of the year. Escallon was keen to caution against this as a false dawn – suggesting that if the vaccine does not see a rapid return to ‘normality,’ many people may well slide back into disillusionment.

Instead, people will be better served by finding ways to manage their energy, cultivate personal connections and focus on meaningful things, regardless of how long this takes or what other bumps there may be on the way. Escallon highlights the value of finding ways to score little daily victories, which can help fuel feelings of being in control.

Taking back control

“By finding small things where we can steer our own situation, we can keep the brain appeased, and avoid the brain becoming overly stressed,” Escallon said, before elaborating on how being aware of how the human brain is wired can help to maintain calm in a storm.

“When we are not stressed, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) takes rational action regarding information it is provided by other parts of the brain. When we are under stress, we can experience an ‘amygdala hijack’ when the emotional part of the brain takes over, and the PFC goes ‘offline’. The amygdala activates the fear circuits of the brain, placing us in fight-or-flight mode, and people find it difficult to think clearly.”

The amygdala hijack has a range of physical consequences, which can include heart palpitations and sweating, as well as the release of stress hormones – which impact the body long after the moment of panic is over, leading to sustained exhaustion. Meanwhile, according to Escallon, the brain is also struggling to find relevant reference points to explain what is happening, further causing disorientation and stress.

“I see everyone around me wearing masks. Rationally I know why that is going on. But my hippocampus, which is like a library, is looking inside its files for relevant references; it either finds nothing, or it might find the association with bank robbers.”

“When the hippocampus sends back those references, the brain cannot make sense of them, and it becomes exhausting – we go around in loops and we can’t be as sharp as we usually are.”

Offsetting an amygdala hijack

Having talked about the why, Escallon then moved on to explaining how to offset an amygdala hijack. First and foremost, people need to take control of what they can, and accept what they cannot. At the same time, the tried and tested staples of “pausing,” such as taking deep breaths, or counting to ten, can have an important bodily function. Escallon stated that such behaviour helps to oxygenate the brain and activate its rational PFC – helping to overcome panic or confusion in the process.

“Labelling your emotions can also help,” Escallon went on. “In some cultures, this can be more difficult for people to do – but it is a simple and effective way to address an amygdala hijack. What you are doing by trying to find the right word to describe how you are feeling and being specific in the labelling, is turning on the PFC, making sure blood moves away from the fear centre in the process.

Then comes the more difficult part of the process – the reframing. This is possible when we realise that what we are feeling is deeply connected to the story we are telling ourselves about the current situation – and that we can choose how to tell the story.

Building resilience

Escallon defines resilience as ‘staying grounded inside, flexibly integrating what is happening outside’. She then moved on to talk about the different levers to build resilience and manage our energy, looking at areas connecting to ‘mind,’ ‘body,’ and ‘soul’.

She covered three areas relating to the mind: thoughts, emotions, and space, the last of which is given too little thought according to Escallon. This space between thoughts and emotions is key to giving us perspective and allowing us to ‘see ourselves’ – as we think and feel. It needs proactive management. Without it, the brain is deprived of rest. Meditation or exercise are common moments where people find this much needed mental space.

Regarding the body, she referred to three key areas: exercise, sleep, nutrition. A healthy exercise regime, regular sleeping pattern, and a balanced diet are essential for manging our mental health and energy. She has seen how a regular sleeping pattern, for example, can have phenomenal effects on our energy and level of rest; and is something we can manage much more easily while in lockdown.

Finally, in the category loosely termed ‘soul,’ she referred to the areas of connection, purpose and transcendence. Humans have evolved as innately social creatures, hardwired to seek out others to boost their chances of surviving and thriving. Connection is therefore essential for human development – connection to others, but also to nature, or to a cause. This relates to the need for a purpose – answering the question of “why am I here?”

This can help individuals to find the energy to persevere through a crisis in pursuit of a passion, or to fulfil some greater goal. It is not necessarily about changing what you do; it can well help define how ‘you do you’ on an everyday basis. Escallon added that this plays into a third category: transcendence. This could take the form of belief in a God, a deeper connection to nature, a focus on the legacy you leave behind, or the service of a community; but ultimately, it is about feeling of being part of something bigger – something that goes beyond you.

In terms of how business leaders can apply this to their organisations, Escallon stated that a key area is to help boost people’s sense of autonomy. Ultimately, empowering them to make changes to their routine, their work, or their behaviour will do a lot of good in a pandemic that has left them feeling powerless. In addition, it is a time when appreciation can go a very long way. “These may be very small things, but this is the time where you really want to be giving people positive feedback and encouragement,” she concluded.

“Also, give people as much certainty as you can. Many leaders decline to give any answer if they cannot be certain about it – leaving people to imagine all manner of probably negative answers in the meantime… So tell them what you know, and be ok to tell them what you don’t know.”

To close, she highlighted that one of the lowest hanging fruits “is doing regular check-ins with your teams, as we did here today – be it the quick 1-minute version or a much longer one where people can express more. By allowing people to share their feelings, they can connect at a deeper human level, realise they are not alone and ‘unload’ some of what they are bringing in. It is probably one of the most powerful and simple things you can do - for yourself and your teams.”