Lockdown stress: 12 leaders share practical coping tips

In hard times, it's far too easy for the boss to forget to look after their own mental health.

by Sarah Ellis
Last Updated: 22 May 2020

COVID-19 isn't just wreaking havoc on human health and economies the world over. It's also jeopardising our mental health.

In a global study conducted by SAP, Qualtrics and Mind Share Partners, around 40 per cent of employees said their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak. And the number of people who would describe the state of their mental health as a three or less on a 10-point scale has doubled.

The emotional and commercial cost of poor employee mental health is huge (estimated by Deloitte to be £43bn). If we want employees to look after their minds, those at the top need to lead the way.

As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, we asked 12 leaders how they're managing their mental health during lockdown.

Alex Cole, chief customer and corporate affairs officer, Bupa

"Music is a great way to reset. If I need to quickly shift my mood, a burst of the right song will get me in the right frame of mind: The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Galvanise’ for motivation and Beth Orton’s ‘It Will Pass’ for more thoughtful moments."

Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and co-CEO, Decoded

"Above all, rest is key. Nothing can be learnt on a tired mind. We are human beings and not machines. It's ok to put the devices down, bin the Zoom calls, stop trying to be 'productive' and go and stare at a tree for a few hours."

Phil Gilbert, director of transformation, Eon

"I’ll be honest: pre-outbreak, I’d joined countless conference calls but never used the video function, and I'd never even heard of Zoom. A week or so into lockdown, I realised I was missing the casual conversations, just bumping into people around the office and catching up with their lives, their workloads, even a bit of gossip! Those ‘happy accident’ conversations have been replaced with something more formulaic – an ‘appointment to chat’ – but the end result is the same. Now I have a virtual coffee every day with somebody outside my team, just to check in and chat. Focus on what you can do to make life better, rather than worrying about the things you can’t."

Sarah Warby, CEO, Lovehoney

"I'm trying to make sure that I spend at least 30 minutes every day being silly with my children. I don't mean the pressure-to-be-perfect-parent snatches of time I normally get with them, but using the fact that we're in the same house all the time to lighten up and find what they find funny, funny. Not all in one go, just moments here and there of complete arsing about."

James Whatley, strategy director, Digitas

"We recognised the impact of 'Zoom fatigue' pretty early on (by the end of the first week of lockdown). As a result, we issued a department-wide, 90-minute work block at lunchtime to get people away from their screens for at least 60 of those 90 minutes. Having red lines on when you will be available and when you won't – and making those red lines visible to your colleagues – has been the most useful thing in maintaining a healthy relationship with my workload."

Maryam Pasha, director and curator of TEDxLondon & TEDxLondonWomen

"As a leader, you can often feel like you have to be even more productive during a time of crisis. But putting this pressure on yourself isn't going to work and will only compound the stress and anxiety we're all dealing with. I'm learning to change my expectations and not punish myself if I'm not as efficient, I need to take time off or I want to work differently. It's also essential for me to extend this same mindset and compassion to the people I work with. Be kind to yourself – and be kind to others."

Katie Lloyd, development director, BBC News & Current Affairs

"I have two boys, aged seven and four, and my husband is also working. It 's not easy. I really believe in that saying that you have to put your oxygen mask on first as a leader so I try to have a walk first thing in the morning. Nothing epic, just 20 minutes on my own away from the kids and in the fresh air. It’s a bit of a reset moment and I always have a more productive day when I do it."

Rachel Eyre, head of brand communications and creative, Sainsbury’s

"I’ve found reading a great way to switch off from work, escape the news, avoid loneliness and stay calm over the last couple of months. I’ve always been a bookworm but have really taken pleasure in sitting outside (when the weather allows) and devouring Sunday magazines and an eclectic roll-call of books. I’ve revisited old favourites and tackled new releases - 875 pages of Tudor love, politics and beheadings in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light being a highlight. Interestingly, I haven’t picked up my Kindle at all: proper books with paper and creases have been a go-to comfort."

Jason Foo, CEO, Perfect Storm

"If you can, take the opportunity to help those who are less fortunate than you. Many people need the help at the moment and it's not only a good way to put yourself in a positive frame of mind for dealing with other leadership and management challenges, it’s also an incredibly good way to remind yourself just how fortunate you are."

Rajeeb Dey MBE, founder & CEO, Learnerbly

"As an entrepreneur working from home, it can be hard to switch off. I've embraced meditation and breathing exercises in the morning as a way to decompress and start the day in a positive way. It's important we treat our minds in the same way we would treat our bodies so I'm consciously trying to make time for both especially during lockdown."

Bejay Mulenga, founder, Supa Talent

"Making sure that I'm operating at tip-top mental capacity is important to me as a leader. I take my health and nutrition very seriously by exercising regularly and staying hydrated throughout the day. I also believe that setting boundaries and maintaining some semblance of work-life balance is key. I block out at least two hours in the early hours of the morning to read and journal to support my self-awareness and personal development."

Jane van Zyl, CEO, Working Families

"I've just taken up digging – this really helps with sleep, as I’m now physically tired. I'm leaning on (and 'oversharing' with) my friends and loved ones. It’s a wonderful thing that now, when people ask 'How are you?', we all really mean it and are interested in the reply."

Sarah Ellis is the co-founder of Amazing If and co-author of The Sunday Times best-selling book The Squiggly Career. For more insights and ideas for action on mental health, listen to the Squiggly Careers podcast

Body images courtesy of the subjects


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