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Kate Bettes
UNSW Business School

What does it take to lead through a crisis? As Australia faces another wave of COVID-19 cases with several states tightening lockdown restrictions, leaders must once again make and communicate decisions quickly in the face of extreme uncertainty.  

UNSW Business School has brought together its top articles on business leadership that explore decision-making in a crisis, the importance of clear communication, and mental health strategies to provide practical tips for leaders and organisations. For more information, please visit the BusinessThink website

The stress of self-isolating and working from home for a long period requires businesses to consider significant preventative planning around employee mental health. Speaking as part of a recent AGSM webinar on leading through a crisis: from coping to thriving, UNSW Business School experts said there are five steps business leaders should adopt to minimise the potential impact the coronavirus pandemic can have on mental health.

See also: Lessons from the frontline in leading through a crisis 

1. Understand the complexity of data on mental health during coronavirus

Unlike data for new coronavirus infections, mental health researchers don’t have adequate data to understand the exact impact on mental health. “We don't know what the shape of the curve is in terms of mental health and whether it is reducing… we're flying blind,” said Professor Helen Christensen, Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute and Professor of Mental Health at UNSW.

Although Black Dog Institute’s latest surveys found there were heightened levels of anxiety and distress within the community, suggesting people may require more support or access to mental health treatments in-person and online, Professor Christensen said it is difficult to know exactly how many Australians require additional help.

“We [Australia] marshalled coronavirus experts, we pulled together predictions around the shape of the curve, we looked at how scenarios could reduce physical health, but from a mental health perspective we were not so well prepared.

“It took us a long time to set up a mental health taskforce. For a long time, we didn't have a chief mental health officer like we do a chief medical officer, so we were pretty ill-prepared in being able to shift to an online environment. The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of population-based prevention is also extremely sparse.”

2. Visionary leadership over excellent reactive leadership

In stressful times when people are experiencing varying levels of uncertainty and anxiety, Professor Christensen said organisations need visionary leadership, rather than excellent reactive leadership.

“We need to be looking 400 rather than 100 metres ahead. We should all be doing mindfulness [and] physical exercises, but also prioritising prevention at a public health level in mental health and moving into a digital space where we can improve our health services so they're available all the time to people.

“This means having structures in place where people with the expertise and the necessary data to drive the best response ahead of time."

To address some of these issues, Professor Christensen recently joined 24 mental health experts setting out immediate priorities and longer-term strategies for mental health science research through the coronavirus pandemic. “Let's hope that we don't let this opportunity to transform our mental health system fall between our fingers in this type of process,” she added.

3. Engage with people on a fundamental level

Organisations and business leaders also need to engage with people on a fundamental level by really thinking about identity, said Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School Professor Frederik Anseel.

As a leader, he said this includes thinking about your own identity and how you see your “future work self”.

“Talk with people to try to create a vision of yourself,” recommended Professor Anseel, who suggested taking this quiz to discover your future work self – a measurement tool he developed with colleagues.

He also noted that engaging with people on a deeper level encourages a more nuanced view of resilience.

 “You need to engage with people on a very fundamental level and talk about their identity, what it means for them and to really think about the future... have an open, honest and deep conversation,” he said.

4. Maintain your corporate athlete

Also speaking on the webinar, UNSW Business School’s Professor of Management Peter Heslin said leaders today have an especially difficult task because they are trying to support others through the pandemic while often facing many of the same personal challenges.

To help address this, he discussed how leaders can maintain their ‘corporate athlete’: “People are at their best when they routinely engage in rituals that support their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities,” he explained. Examples of such rituals include:

  •      Oscillating between sitting and standing;
  •      Setting time for and having an exercise program;
  •      Being gentle on yourself and others;
  •      Limiting your exposure to news; and
  •      Engaging in meditation, journaling, prayer, or service to other people.

“Devote time to challenging and wellbeing-sustaining tasks, enjoyable tasks throughout each day. Avoid getting bogged down in one type of task for too long by routinely engaging in all three,” added Professor Heslin.

5. Be in learning mode

Finally, Professor Heslin challenged everyone to strive to be in ‘learning mode’ about an ability or skill they would like to develop. This might be, for instance, a technical skill, listening more effectively, playing an instrument, or learning another language.

Being in learning mode requires fostering a growth mindset about the ability or skill you are aiming to cultivate. To achieve this, he recommends the following five steps:

  1. Set goals to focus on developing proficiency in what you might enjoy rather than just doing what you're already good at;
  2. Assess your progress against personal milestones versus others’ progress or achievements;
  3. Interpret setbacks as a need for better strategies and more practice, as opposed to diagnosing what you're not inherently good at;
  4. Celebrate your persistent effort and progress;
  5. Enjoy the process of learning.

See also: 3 lessons from the GFC in how to lead through the coronavirus crisis 

See also: 4 ways to improve employee wellbeing post-coronavirus 

For the full article on Coronavirus mental health crisis: 5 ways leaders can help, visit the BusinessThink website which shares the latest UNSW Business School research stories, analysis, evidence-based opinion and insights.