In the immediate aftermath of shelter-in-place orders being put into place around the country, including in NYC where I live, I thought I was going to break. After five days of sitting in my apartment alone, I felt my naturally high baseline anxiety levels begin to rise at an alarming rate.
After spending nearly two decades living with and managing a mental illness– namely intense periods of depression and anxiety that left me hospitalized numerous times in my late teens and early 20s– I know by now that being left completely alone for long lengths of time is not good for me. I, thankfully, have an incredible support system and had the privilege of being able to pick up the phone and get picked up and swept away to the Pennsylvania suburbs by close family friends within hours.
Still, even surrounded by family, the first couple weeks or so of “life during COVID-19” were rough. My business’s sales had bottomed out, I’d lost the privacy I was used to living alone, and not knowing how long it would all last exacerbated my anxiety. Now, weeks later though, looking back on the past couple of months, I’ve discovered something that has profoundly surprised me.
For many of us navigating life with a mental health condition, the collective “slowing down” forced upon us by COVID-19, both at work and in our personal lives, marks the first time we’ve actually been given explicit and widespread permission from the external world to be gentle with ourselves, to take care of ourselves, and our mental health.
Working in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, in the first few weeks of COVID-19, I saw the focus on traditionally underserved demographics like POC, women, LGBTQ+people shift to the conversation of mental health and wellness. How, employers began asking themselves, could we help employees manage the mental toll that the novel coronavirus was surely taking on so many people in the workplace? Especially those who were already predisposed to mental health issues.
Not only did programming begin emerging to talk through tips on managing stress, anxiety, and grief, but the conversation itself about mental health bubbled to the surface in a way I’ve never seen before. People were actually talking honestly about mental health. And reasonable accommodations like flexible working hours, coaching support and EAP’s, and no-questions-asked mental health days became the norm and continue to be so.
In reflecting on my own company’s shifts, I recognized a new level of flexibility on our team as well. In making sure that my team members had space to take care of themselves, I inadvertently began creating space to take care of myself too.
Suddenly, it felt okay to be a founder and CEO taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon to mentally and physically recharge. Why the hell not? Taking a day off to manage the swirling feelings of anxiety and depression exacerbated by the uncertainty of running a small business with dwindling runway? Completely reasonable.
And you know what? Giving myself permission to take care of myself worked wonders for my well-being. I found myself putting consistent time aside to work out in the morning, to stretch before bed. Hell, I even discovered face yoga, which admittedly only lasted as a routine for about two days, but still, y’all! Every day, I take a non-working lunch break and have been eating actual fruits and veggies.
Most importantly, my mental health has thanked me. I feel balanced and calmer, better equipped to weather the complex emotions of managing my business and team. I have slowed down enough to lean into empathy, find myself losing my temper less, feeling less anxiety, and being able to course-correct more quickly when I find myself going down a path of gloom. In short, I’m not just a better me; I’m a better boss and a better teammate.
Which brings me back to that profound discovery. This is what we (people living with mental illness, and, frankly, those who aren’t too) need all the time from our workplaces.***
***Quick interlude/note: Being a small business owner, while tough as hell, is a privilege, as is being able to work from home. I’d be remiss not to point out that these ways of practicing self-care are not accessible to a lot of people, particularly for front-liners during COVID-19, which frankly, is a problem in and of itself.***
In the past two and a half years running Collective, a DEI consultancy, our culture assessments have consistently shown on average about 30–40% of employees self-reporting living with a mental illness. In that time, I’ve seen very few companies implement any meaningful programs and policies to support that vast portion of the workforce in the way that COVID-19 has managed to push people to do in the last two or so months.
I’m constantly looking for silver linings in this global tragedy, and if I walk away with only one, it will be knowing that it is no longer possible to deny that you can support your employees — be they parents, disabled folks, or, in this case, those living with mental illness — with the flexibility and care that enables them to thrive while also running a successful business.
So employers, managers, when this is all over, I urge you — don’t stop talking about mental wellness. Keep encouraging people explicitly to take care of themselves, both physically and mentally. To do what they need to do so that they can show up as their best, healthiest selves. Your employees will thank you and so will your business.