As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease across Australia, there is still a lingering sense of uncertainty. The pandemic has added pressure to all aspects of life, taking a significant toll on the mental health of many Australians.

Mental health disorders contribute significantly to the cost of health care in Australia, with the estimated national recurrent expenditure on mental health-related services at around $9.9 billion in 2017-18. While social distancing is necessary to help stop the physical spread of the disease, the mental health implications of isolation will continue to be felt for some time, and it's important business leaders plan to support those in need within their organisation.

"We're seeing an increase in mental illness and psychological distress, which is expected from this kind of a stressor," said Scientia Professor Helen Christensen (AO) Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute and a Professor of Mental Health at UNSW, during the recent AGSM webinar 'Leading Through Times of Crisis: From Coping to Thriving'

Professor Christensen was joined by fellow experts Professor Frederik Anseel, Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School, and Professor Peter Heslin, Associate Professor at UNSW School of Management, registered psychologist and UNSW Scientia Education Fellow, to discuss the immediate and ongoing mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There's no quick fix

Adapting and resilience are important in times of crisis, but that doesn't mean simply pushing through if you are struggling. Professor Anseel said that the assumption among psychologists in the past has been 'what does not kill you makes you stronger', but there should be a more nuanced view to how people cope. He compares the personal crisis we're seeing today with his research on how people navigated the 2007-2009 global financial crisis. This research found that resilience is not a trait, but more of a process of recovery. Everyone has different a trajectory in how they recover.

"It is not something that some people have and others don't. Resilience is a process. We'll all have a setback and some will recover quickly, while some people will have a second wave, where they struggle again. You need to accept those fluctuations," he said.

Reassuringly, research shows that a lot of people have a good capacity to cope and adapt. Professor Anseel calls this 'psychological immunity', where people often overestimate how they think they will react to a negative situation, so when it actually happens they can manage it.

Future-lead rather than reactive leadership

Whether it's new working arrangements, changed home circumstances, economic uncertainty, or risk of ill health, Professor Christensen said everyone is feeling some pain - and we are in need of strong leadership at a government level, to help understand the mental health needs of the wider community.

"What COVID has taught us is that we need decisive leadership rather than reactive leadership. We need to be looking 400 metres ahead, not 100 metres ahead."

According to Professor Christensen there is currently no strong evidence about what interventions can or should be made at a public health level to ease the psychological distress of the community. The best way forward isn't clear. She states current leaders need to take the learnings from this global pandemic and transform the mental health system, so there are structures in place to adequately deal with any future crises.

"We need the structures in place, the people with the expertise, and the data to drive the response ahead of time to deal with crises. Let's hope we don't let this opportunity to transform our mental health system fall between our fingers," she said.

Creating connections

Following the enforcement of lockdown measures, Lifeline experienced its busiest month in the crisis support service's 57-year history, jumping from 2,500 calls a day in recent years, to 3,200 calls a day in March, 2020. Loneliness is a direct impact of social isolation, but Professor Heslin said we can find the high-quality connections that we crave in the workplace, when leaders set a positive example.

Referencing the work of Professor Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan, Professor Heslin said that interacting and deeply engaging can not only increase employees' and organisations' capabilities but make people feel more invigorated and connected, which is especially important in the current climate.

"These principles are simply to engage respectfully with other people. By showing that we're present, we're genuine, we're affirming, and we support them in how we communicate."

Maintaining open and transparent communication about the future of the organisation will also support this. As will leading discussions about how people are feeling, and creating a safe space for discussion around potential stressors or fears. These strategies can also be applied at home or in social circles.

"Try and focus on what's strong, great, noble and admirable about people and help them see that in themselves. But do it in a genuine way. It's about the focus of our attention. We focus on what's good and need to help others see it in themselves," Professor Heslin said.

Focus on the future

These connections and genuine conversations can also help create a clear vision of the future, so people can move forward to the 'next phase' with some certainty and confidence. Professor Anseel refers to this future vision of yourself acting as a compass through the turbulence of a crisis - and he invites leaders to talk to people about this.

"If you're thinking about how you can help people cope with a crisis, it's not just about tips and tricks. You need to engage with people on a very fundamental level. Talk about their mental capability, how they are coping, and how they can be better supported in the future.

People are feeling a real sense of loss, or fear of potential loss - of employment, income, health, family and/or friends. This spiral can impact a person's hope for the future and negatively impact their mental health. Leaders can take this opportunity to embrace new ways of working, making teams aware of their contribution throughout extreme disruption.

Continual learning can also help create that vision for the future. It's important that leaders continue to encourage growth, so their teams can understand what the priorities are and can set their own goals to achieve these outcomes. Professor Heslin encourages the adoption of a growth mindset, to celebrate persistence and progress against their own milestones, rather than comparing to others to create a positive momentum of development.

"Rethinking what we once thought was imperative can be a really great way to bring out the best in people. Help them appreciate the significance of their work. If someone's got a job, it's because someone else depends on the fruit of their work. Helping to see the positive difference people make can really increase the meaning people have in their work," Professor Helsin said.

While the imminent threat of COVID-19 may have eased, it is important to remember the psychological impacts are ongoing. By taking on lessons learned from this pandemic, leaders can provide the support and stability that will encourage teams to thrive through future adversity.

To listen to a recording of the AGSM Webinar 'Leading Through Times of Crisis: From Coping to Thriving' and other webinars in the series, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.