04 Jun 2020
Five ways to manage mental health in a crisis

Five ways to manage mental health in a crisis

When you’re a manager, the health and wellbeing of your team is a high priority. And that includes mental health.

Right now, it’s only natural people will feel anxious about what lies ahead. So to help you navigate these times of uncertainty, workplace mental health expert from the Jonah Group, Anna Feringa has five practical tips.

1. Understand the impact of change

There’s no denying the COVID-19 crisis has seen our lives turn upside down, which impacts work, home, family and friends. Before the impacts of COVID-19 we all enjoyed a dedicated workspace with the freedom to go places. We had routines, systems and a strong team culture. We experienced clear decision-making and face-to-face meetings. Much of that has changed.

In work from home environments and with continued uncertainty, we’re competing for space and time. There are fluctuations in productivity and we’re relying on new systems and video tools.

It’s important to remember, this is a big change for many of us and we all deal with change differently. And although we are beginning to see restrictions lift, ways of working have evolved for many, and some changes may be permanent. So, continuing to manage our teams’ response and their mental health is extremely important.

2. Empathise with unusual behaviour

While some people will thrive in a remote working environment, others will feel alone. Isolation can have a very negative impact that could potentially lead to depression.

Some people in your team will experience irrational fear that could show itself in strange behaviour. And with the full impact of COVID-19 still not clear for many of us, anxiety is prolonged, particularly when it comes to job security.

So, as a leader, it helps to understand the signs.

3. Identify signs of declining mental health

If someone is struggling, signs will appear in four general ways – cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural. A heightened level of stress could lead to:

  • Cognitive changes – memory loss, poor concentration, self-doubt and dropping of standards
  • Emotional changes – agitation, depression, tears and anger
  • Behavioural changes – social withdrawal and neglected responsibilities
  • Physical changes – aches and pains, nausea and colds triggered by stress.

If you notice any changes in performance or behaviour, it might be time to ask some questions. Although it’s not always easy, initiating a conversation around mental health will give you the answers you need for you and your team to function well.

For example, if someone’s performance is declining, ask “Are you OK? Is anything going on?”

It’s always better to start with a care approach, followed by a performance-based approach – not the other way around.

Hand clutching a stress ball

4. Adjust your leadership style under crisis

Changing your management style will help you help your team. Look for signs of different behaviour in meetings. Think about what could be causing your people anxiety, and what questions you could be asking.

Ask your team what they need to work effectively. And remember, what works for one won’t work for others. Be prepared for a drop (or increase) in productivity. People have different coping mechanisms, which will affect their performance.

Most importantly, be open and transparent. Tell your team how you’re feeling, then invite them to tell you how they’re feeling. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to lead your team through an unprecedented and ongoing event like COVID-19.

If any of your people have a pre-existing mental health problem, or develop one as a result of coronavirus, you may be faced with a mental health critical incident like a panic attack. You may come across someone talking in a way that indicates they may be thinking about self-harm or suicide.

As a leader you need to be prepared – and think about what support your workplace has in place. Know your boundaries and when to divert your people to receive external support or emergency services. You are not expected to manage their mental health, only support it.

Remember, you’re going through COVID-19 too, so look after yourself. You’re not going to be an effective leader if you’re burnt out.

5. Introduce a little fun

Everyone working remotely will be missing the chat and camaraderie you experience when you’re working on site in a team. So where you can, try to re-introduce a similar vibe.

For example, if you and your team previously enjoyed a Friday night debrief over drinks, you could continue the tradition with virtual drinks on a Friday afternoon. Or why not run a poll with a prize to guess the return back to office date? Even a team meeting wearing funny hats or fancy dress could lighten things up.

The good news is, things are starting to return to normal. But until they do, try to make the most of every situation. Then you and your team will come out of this closer and stronger than ever.

Learn more

Like to learn more about managing mental health? See Anna’s full webinar.

Or, if you’d like more useful advice on working remotely, read our How to handle distractions when working from home.


Anna FeringaAbout Anna Feringa

With over 15-years’ experience, Anna supports employers by helping them see that embracing mental health in the workplace can help prevent injury and drive a great culture. 

She helps Australian businesses to go from fearful and confused, to confident and responsive when faced with Mental Health challenges in the workplace.


The advice in this article is general in nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You must decide whether or not it is appropriate, in light of your own circumstances, to act on this advice.

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