Navigating Mental Health for Hybrid Working: A Leadership Perspective

by David Meredith on May 10, 2023

Take a moment to imagine this - it's December 2019, just over three years ago. The office was abuzz with discussions about holiday plans and travel. The stock market was flourishing, and social issues were predominantly geopolitical.

Now, let's fast forward through the unprecedented next three years.

The Challenges We Faced

In March 2020, COVID-19 hit, and the largest economy in the world, the USA, shut down. Dr Fauci says we may lose 100,000 - 200,000 Americans to the disease and quotes “Preparing for 1 million to 2 million Americans to die from the coronavirus is "almost certainly off the chart," he said, adding: "Now, it's not impossible, but very, very unlikely."  The current total as of the date of this article is 1.1 million.

The stock market crashes.  And again.  And again.  Between Feb 7th and June 11th, 2020 the Dow Jones records the Top 7 point drop days in its history and in the period Feb 12th to March 16th loses 31.7% of its value.

As organizations tried to adapt to this new normal, societal upheavals, such as racial injustices and climate disruptions, took center stage. The year 2021 began with political unrest in the US and other parts of the world. As economies started to reopen, supply chain disruptions led to global inflation.

The Emergence of Hybrid Working and Its Impact on Mental Health

Workforces began settling into a "new" normal. The term "hybrid working" became commonplace as many workers opted out, causing upheavals in labor markets. The emergence of COVID-19 vaccines brought hope, but the virus mutated quickly. Amidst this uncertainty, mental health for hybrid working became a significant concern.

Entering 2022, Russia invades Ukraine and draws the world into the war.  Inflation impacts everyone with the UK rising at 15% and the USA at 6.5%.  Monetary policy tightens, seemingly with little positive impact.  Covid shifts to being an endemic problem and offices finally start to reopen in a limited fashion. One returning worker describes it as a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie - “headphones left on desks, coats left on racks, dead plants, the occasional flicker of a computer monitor, people fearful and distanced.”

Three years.  3.  Not 10.  Not 20. Not one person anticipated this level of stress across all aspects of our lives and society.  Global problems, social problems, climate catastrophes, financial insecurity.

The toll on mental health has been immeasurable, particularly when considering the impact of hybrid working.

Personal Experiences Amidst the Chaos

But that’s the big stuff.  Let’s make this personal.  Because at the end of the day, I want you to look at your individual journey through this time.  And the journey of the people and teams that you lead.  Here are some of my experiences.

  • My girlfriend's tears when her Pilates business shut down at the start of the pandemic.
  • A colleague sharing an employee's mental health struggles due to work stress.
  • A client who couldn't disconnect and join their family for Thanksgiving because of insane work demands.

What's your experience? I’d love you to take a moment and reflect on the lowest point over the last 3 years.  And then, take a moment to realize that every single person in your team probably had a similar lowest point.  For different reasons. At a different time.  But it was there.

And yet through all of this, all this turmoil, stress, and uncertainty, there’s one thing that remains remarkably unchanged.  The rituals most leaders and managers use to connect with their employees.  And that’s not a good thing.

Leadership and Teams: A New Approach to Mental Health in Hybrid Working

In the book “Leading through Chaos” by Scott Mann, the author suggests a three-step approach to effective leadership:

  1. Lead yourself first.
  2. Lead those closest to you second.
  3. Lead the team third.

As we apply these principles to hybrid teams, here are some practical suggestions for promoting mental health for hybrid working:

1. Self-Care and Resilience in Leadership

Firstly, be kind to yourself. Studies, like this one from Microsoft, show that constant video calls can drain mental energy and negatively impact productivity. So, take back ownership of your calendar, create breaks for yourself, and set healthy boundaries between work and personal commitments. It's okay to admit that you don’t have answers for all these “new” problems in the hybrid world. And remember, focus on the “fewer things that matter” - you can’t do everything, and that's okay.

2. Fostering Mental Health for Hybrid Working Teams

Take care of the mental health of the team you lead directly by creating time and space for deeper personal questions. There’s evidence that deeper conversations create more happiness in each of us. Dedicate time in your team meetings for deeper questions such as:

  • What are you most proud of this year?
  • What are you most grateful for?
  • What social issue are you most concerned about at the moment?
  • What worries you the most?
  • From 1-100, how stressed are you, and what’s one thing I can do to help you with that?

3. Redefining Work Rituals for Hybrid Working

Engage your team in experimenting with new work rituals designed to reduce stress and increase well-being. As Gartner outlined in the report Future of Work Reinvented, we should redesign the workplace to be human-centric. Here are some innovative ideas:

4. Empathy and Connection in Leadership

Lastly, be a human. Perhaps my hardest piece of advice, but if you dare to adopt it, I guarantee a massive payoff. One thing I’ve learned from coaching many executives over the years is that success is built on good habits and good habits are built on repetition. Reach out to one person you know. Today. Ask them “How are you doing?” “How can I help you?” “What can I do to help you do your job better?”.

Simon Sinek's video about Noah emphasizes the power of being human. So, make a habit of reaching out to your team members, showing them they matter, and offering help and support. These moments can be some of the most rewarding in your career. And then do this again tomorrow.  And the next day.  And the next.  Show people they matter.  You care about them.

In conclusion, the journey of the past three years has been difficult for everyone. As leaders, we must adapt and find new ways to support mental health for hybrid working teams. By doing so, we can navigate these challenges together and build a stronger, more resilient future.

About the Author

David Meredith is a seasoned executive coach and thought leader, leveraging his experience as a two-time entrepreneur and former CEO/CTO/CIO to guide leaders and teams to achieve their goals, enhance team performance, and navigate complex challenges. Connect with him further via Linkedin.

Topics: Effective Leadership