How to protect your mental health in a crisis
Situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic can be overwhelming for entrepreneurs, with so much that's unpredictable and uncontrollable. So, how can business owners protect their mental health in a crisis and maintain, or restore, a sense of personal balance?
Clinical psychologist and CEO/founder of MyWorkplaceHealth Dr. Joti Samra (R.Psych.) recommends six key practices to help entrepreneurs protect their mental wellbeing in the coronavirus era.
1. Take control where you can
“One of the first things we can do to regain a sense of balance is find opportunities to establish regularity in our lives and businesses,” says Dr. Samra.
Forging new communication routines is an important way for entrepreneurs to do so, she says, because they’re easy to implement and foster connection across your team. Reworking budget forecasts and creating incremental, month-by-month plans are also good ways to restore the sense you have things in hand.
2. Hit your own pause button
Evidence shows people can not only get by, but actually thrive in highly demanding, stressful situations, Dr. Samra says. The key, according to demand-control theory, is having some control over what you do and when you do it.
“I often think of that infamous I Love Lucy scene when Lucy and Ethel go to work in the chocolate factory and get totally overwhelmed on the assembly line. They can’t keep up with the pace of chocolates coming and start throwing them over their shoulders, down their shirts—and eating them. If they’d had a pause button, they could have stopped, stepped back from the action and caught their breath, then picked up again at a high pace. Everybody needs that.”
When and how entrepreneurs “hit pause” will differ from person to person, but giving yourself the freedom to do so is key, she says.
3. Be transparent
Teams look to their leaders for guidance and support in a crisis. But they also want to know they’re not alone in how they feel. Dr. Samra suggests that when entrepreneurs are open with their teams about their own struggles and concerns, it helps build trust and loyalty.
“Show them you’re in it together and allow yourself to receive support from them, too,” she says. “The trust you build will pay off in engagement down the road. Remember: Trust is about relationships, not policies or procedures.”
4. Seek support
The COVID-19 crisis has been accompanied by a lot of talk about social distancing, a term Dr. Samra dislikes. She prefers “physical distancing.”
“We all still need social connection in times like this,” she says. “Entrepreneurs carrying their teams through the crisis need to be able to reach out to a network of peers who understand what they’re going through.”
She urges business owners to talk honestly with each other about their worries and weaknesses, even though it’s not always easy or natural, because it helps let some of the pressure out.
5. Practice self-care
Self-care matters, too, Dr. Samra says. “It seems ‘touchy-feely’ sometimes, but practically speaking if you’re already working long days and are looking at an 18-month road ahead, taking care of yourself is essential. That means managing your work hours, eating well, minimizing your alcohol consumption, being physically active, and getting lean and mean about setting priorities because you know that to-do list will never be ‘done.’”
She says good, regular sleep is especially vital—but that can be hard in times of high stress. Limiting the amount of news you consume and avoiding the stimulation of being over-connected to your devices, particularly later at night, can help contribute to a more restful headspace.
“A lot of people say they can’t turn their phones off at night because they use them as alarm clocks,” she says. “But if you switch on airplane mode, your alarm will still work and you won’t have the disruption of middle-of-the-night notifications and alerts.”
If you’re already working long days and looking at an 18-month road ahead taking care of yourself is essential.
6. Take time to be grateful
Dr. Samra’s final bit of advice is to take time every day to identify things you’re grateful for—individually and even with your team. While it may sound fanciful, it has been proven to neurophysiologically reduce anxiety and depression and enhance the quality of relationships.
“It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of negativity,” Dr. Samra says. “Practicing gratitude helps prevent that. You can do it anywhere, any time—in the shower or while you’re brushing your teeth.”
She adds that if you do feel overwhelmed and can’t immediately access psychological supports or services, there are many good, free, evidence-based resources online, including at her own website. She recommends going to a trusted source instead of consulting “Dr. Google”, as not all mental health resources online are of equal quality.
The Canadian Standards Association has published a workplace standard for psychological health and safety, which can help business owners make sure their work environments are mentally healthy and supportive overall.
We know people should work in environments that are free from hazards like asbestos, Dr. Samra explains. “There are similar risk factors on the mental health side of things. The standard is a great tool to help business owners create work environments that promote mental health and wellbeing.”
Additional MyWorkplaceHealth resources recommended by Dr. Samra:
- Blogs on psychological health and safety, leadership and employee resilience
- Videos on COVID-19 and anxiety
- Videos on anxiety and sleep
- Free webinar on psychological health, wellness and resilience in the COVID-19 era