Mental health – murky waters or clear skies?

by Rici van Schalkwyk | December 8, 2021

It is December. The big rush to get things done and start fresh in the new year. Exciting right? Not quite.

The mom exiting the supermarket, the gentleman in the car behind me in traffic, the young man entering the meeting in the office, all have the same look. The look of a deer caught in the headlights or more accurately like it is facing the business-end of a gun. That look of tiredness, anxiety, and hopelessness. Irritability so high that the slightest friction causes an unintended explosion.

Ok, maybe it is an over-exaggeration, but when did you last really look at the people around you?…

Not the polite cursory glance or quick greeting. A look to see the person. To connect.

What do you see?

I see suffering. Not just the visible suffering that comes from physical ailments and financial loss. But emotional and mental suffering and tiredness.

We are facing a new pandemic within the ongoing pandemic. This new pandemic is of a completely different nature but has things in common with the current one:

  • It is invisible until you get ill.
  • The symptoms have a lot in common with known everyday ailments.
  • We are also not really equipped to fight it.

We are facing a mental health pandemic. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors are fully booked for months in advance. Waiting lists grow by the day. And this is only the percentage of individuals that seek help. There is a large portion that need similar support but don’t seek it or cannot afford it.

Why now?

It seems as if 2020 and 2021 flew by in a blur, but we watched it in slow motion. Like an accident scene that you cannot look away from. Everything became uncertain.

Who could have imagined:

  • that major global cities could have empty streets for weeks?
  • that pollution would not be the cause for every global citizen to wear a mask outside?
  • that wars/fighting between countries would cease for an invisible foe?

Our understanding of what is certain and possible, shifted completely. Our instincts drive us to fit new things into our current frameworks in order to understand it and cope with it.

We normalised all the changes connected to the pandemic when we realised the world will never be the same post pandemic. These changes impacted every aspect of our lives.

Nothing about the last two years fit into the frameworks we had. Still, we expected from ourselves and everyone else to just accept and keep going. The strain accumulated.

New normal – the good and the bad

The world collectively held their breath for the pandemic to pass. For things to return to normal. Then it became clear: normal was never going to return. So we aimed for as close to normal as possible. And the new normal was born.

From a personal development perspective, the early pandemic restrictions, though foreign for most of us, did have positives. Being homebound and witnessing all the losses, meant re-evaluating what really matters. Spending time at home also led to re-connecting with those closest to us and/or finding new/old hobbies.

On the negative side, being homebound isolated us from everyone not living with us. Not being able to spend time in nature, relaxing or exercising, negatively impacted the mental health of many. The effects worsened as the pandemic continued.

Life has a natural structure of breaks or pauses. Pauses created by going to school and work, exercising, and going home. Our minds recognise these and are ‘programmed’ with a response to each. These pauses disappeared, messing with our programming/functioning.

Many experienced one or more of the following:

  • sleeplessness or excessive sleeping
  • irritability and frustration
  • depressed moods
  • anxiety, etc.

Even after we went back to the office or school in the new normal, the changes and disruption in the natural structure continued.

All of us suffered loss during this pandemic. Whether the loss was loved ones, jobs, houses, experiences, etc. Loss in any form causes trauma. Different degrees of trauma of course, but trauma, nonetheless. Trauma that needs systems in place to come to grips with and experience the emotions it brings.

What has it got to do with me?

As humans, we are all impacted in some way or form. As leaders and businesses, even more so.

The Gallup State of the Global Workplace 20211 Report indicated:

  • 45% of people say their own life has been affected “a lot” by the pandemic situation.
  • 41% of employees experienced daily worry.
  • 43% of employees experienced daily stress.
  • 24% of employees experienced daily anger.
  • 25% of employees experienced daily sadness.

This is just some of the statistic from the report.

Whether we are prepared or not, it is relevant to most organisations. The emotions described by the report, if frequent or constant, may manifest as physical illness, burnout, and depression. Resulting in absent employees. The cost of absent employees escalates very quickly and places additional strain on co-workers.

As leaders, especially servant leaders, we need to create organisational cultures and structures that allow for long term wellbeing. By no means is it suggested that leaders and organisations suddenly turn into mental health experts or fund employees’ therapy.

There are simple practices and structures that can make the difference between a healthy productive workforce or an absent, unproductive workforce.

Start with you

Leading by example becomes even more important during difficult and uncertain times. Employees are looking to the leaders for guidance and stability. More than ever leaders need to be the guiding light and the example.

If you have ever watched the safety demonstration on an airplane, you will know that they emphasise that you must put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

Leader, take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. Your business and employees need you too.

Clear the storm

During a storm a lake becomes choppy and murky. You can’t see through the water. But when the storm subsides, the water becomes clear.

The same applies to the mind. If our thoughts are stormy and racing, we make impulse decisions. A clear mind is needed for good decisions.

What activity clears your mind? Does the activity have a permanent slot in your calendar?

If possible, identify a few activities of various time lengths. All of us need a 5 min activity that clears the mind. Something we can practise quickly without taking too much time. This is not a substitute for longer activities, those remain very important.

Take time to pause and think.

Reduce the noise.

Life is filled with constant noise. Emails, messages, social media, etc. create continuous mental noise. Technology made it possible to always be contactable. Smartphones mean you are always “at work” and “at home”.

The lines between working hours and personal time have been blurring steadily. Lately, it has all but vanished. Emailing while in a virtual meeting, checking messages and emails during physical meetings and viewing social media while working has become the norm. Similarly, answering business emails and messages while “relaxing”, quickly checking if it is not urgent, and taking business calls any time of the day, distracts from personal time.

Our minds are overwhelmed with all the distractions and noise. The natural break between working hours and personal time needs to be re-established.

Why not turn off your smartphone notifications? Or leave your phone at your desk when attending meetings? Check and answer emails at scheduled times during the day. Reflect on what creates mental noise for you and find ways to reduce it.

Focus on simplicity

Uncertainty and complexity often follow one another. Trying to make decisions and plans on ever changing and unknown parameters, bring complexity to leading in these times.

Keep it simple. Focus on the vision and goals of the business. Look for new perspectives on current challenges by involving your support team. (Read more in the article: May I borrow your glasses? – wauko).

Involve managers and team leaders in this process of focussing on the vision and goals. Encourage frequent, consistent, and clear communication throughout the organisation.

Everyone must be clear on what is expected of them.

Implement strength-based performance management

”Gallup has found that people who use their strengths every day are more likely to feel respected, well-rested and that they have enough energy to get things done.” 2

Implement a strength-based performance management system that place goalsetting and performance metrics within employees’ control.

The focus is then on strength-based development and optimising people’s strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses and unobtainable goals.

Regular check-ins

Managers and leaders that have regular check-ins with the individuals in their teams, create strong and healthy bonds within the team.

Individuals want to know that we see and hear them as people. By listening to work-related challenges, the managers mitigate much of the frustration and anxiety without necessarily resolving any of the challenges.

The isolation from being homebound has left most feeling disconnected. These regular check-ins build connection to the team and the organisation.

The check-ins also create the perfect platform for refocusing on goals.

Uninterrupted leave

Everyone needs time to rest. Rest without interruptions. During the pandemic people started to work without leave, because they did not want to use leave when they could not travel. Furthermore, even when on leave people “checked-in” on emails, not wanting work to pile up on their desks.

The structures, policies, procedures, and decision-making framework within the organisation, need to make it possible for every employee to take uninterrupted leave.

Review your organisations leave policy and leave provision. Ensure that employees take leave on regular intervals with at least one two-week continuous period per year. This is very important in managing the energy, performance, and mental health of employees.

Culture of collaboration and teamwork

Organisational cultures that encourage teamwork and collaboration provides another platform for connection. Cross-functional teams also cultivate a better understanding of the organisation and others’ struggles.

Co-workers provide much needed emotional support. They say a problem shared is a problem halved. Hearing that other people also have challenges gives perspective and the knowledge that you are not struggling alone.

We need people to speak up, when they are struggling. This starts with the leaders. Leaders, create that close circle that you trust and that supports you. Speak up when you are struggling and allow them to support you.

This builds a culture of support, safety, and trust. A culture of wellbeing.


At wauko we believe that our people are our most valuable asset. We support each other and wauperform offers a unique service that embrace holistic wellbeing.

We would love to hear more about your own experiences.


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