6 April 2020

A wellbeing mindset for leaders

At this moment, the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is fundamentally changing the way we work and the way we live our lives. But amidst the effort to manage the impacts of COVID-19, we are also grappling with the mental health impacts of social isolation, heightened anxiety and financial uncertainty. Business leaders have the additional challenge of managing teams remotely and steering organisations through a period like no other in recent history.

"As leaders we have to be able to lead with confidence and perspective while balancing the underlying anxieties and emotions of our people. This is doubly hard when we may be experiencing our own fears and uncertainties as we face a health and economic event unprecedented in our times,” says Sean West, Head of Wealth Management at Macquarie Banking and Financial Services Group,

“In time, COVID-19 will pass, and while not everything will go back to normal, a new normal will emerge. Those organisations with purpose, innovation and a focus on clients will prosper.”

There’s a growing appreciation for the need for business leaders to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of the mental health issues that are likely to emerge, and develop the skills to help their teams and families cope.

“It’s important to acknowledge this stage is like a grieving period, with feelings of shock and denial,” says Mindstar founder Aaron Williams, who works to improve and maintain emotional wellbeing in workplaces. “We all know people who are losing something – their job, their connection to the things and people they hold dear. It feels out of our control.”

Dr Jill Newby, Associate Professor at UNSW, based at the Black Dog Institute, says it’s natural for people to feel overwhelmed – and almost half the exponential increase in traffic to Black Dog’s website is for COVID-related support.

During previous pandemics, it has been estimated 25% to 33% of the community experienced high levels of worry and anxiety1 – and people with pre-existing anxiety and other mental health disorders are most at risk. With one in five Australians aged 16 to 85 suffering from a mental health disorder2 – and one in three in the financial services sector3 – there’s a good chance you know someone who is feeling vulnerable during this time.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to support one another – colleagues, clients, families, friends and neighbours. Prioritising self-care is just as important.

Here are four ways to do this while adapting to a very different way of living and working.

1. Accept the rhythm of work will change

Williams says the leaders he is coaching find today’s lack of control distressing because they’re used to pushing themselves.

In this environment, Dr Newby notes it’s important to take the pressure off both yourself and your teams – especially for those who face the additional stress of home schooling or worrying about elderly parents. “It might not be realistic to expect the same level of work – you need to adjust expectations and be flexible.” Some people may need to alter their hours to balance their family needs, or work in shorter stints throughout the day. 

West and his wife are both now working from home and home-schooling two teenagers. He says this requires a lot more energy in his role as a leader (and as a parent), as he needs to be as visible as possible and maximise the connection he has with his team, family and broader community.

“The leadership unit – whether in business or in families – needs to be stronger and more authentic than ever today,” he observes. “But you can’t keep giving more without changing something. For me, that means ensuring that I find some time to get out on my own to exercise every day. It gives me the mental space to reflect on things.”

It’s not realistic to expect the same level of work – you need to adjust expectations and be flexible.

Associate Professor Dr Jill Newby, Black Dog Institute

2. Set up structure and rituals

Whether it’s a morning Zoom catch-up or virtual Friday drinks, people are finding creative ways to replicate the social stimulation of a typical working week.

West says his team has turned a quarterly in-person ‘what’s on your mind’ session to a weekly virtual event for hundreds of people. “People share different stories about how they’re dealing with the situation, and it gives us a good perspective on the current reality. It also gives our leaders a chance to demonstrate their own vulnerability by talking about the challenges they are facing - it’s a shared experience.” Daily check in calls every afternoon with his immediate team also provide a chance to reflect on the day and check in on the wellbeing of each team member.

Self-care routines are just as important. “Schedule in exercise,” suggests Dr  Newby. If you lack motivation to do it solo, team up with a family member or try a virtual class with a friend. And get enough sleep. “Sleep is a powerful antidote to anxiety, and it also helps the immune system,” she adds.

If work and life are blurring together, enforce a start and end time to your work day and create a ‘buffer’ – this could be as simple as changing out of your work clothes at 6pm. Dr Newby is working from the living room of her small apartment, so she puts her computer away on Friday evening to visually create a weekend break.

3. Stay connected in every way you can

Now’s the time to equip everyone in your team with the technology and skills to work together when they’re remote. Williams says it’s important to make sure no one is left behind. “Team morale is so important right now, take time to appreciate people,” he notes.

West says he is particularly conscious of people who live alone, and those who may want more contact. “We make sure they have multiple touchpoints. Everyone is dealing with this in a very personal way, so the more we can personalise our interaction the more impact we can have.”

It’s OK, as a leader, to say you’re also struggling with this, and you don’t have all the answers.

Aaron Williams, Mindstar

4. Recognise and respond to the signs

Create a safe space for your team members to discuss how they are feeling. “It’s OK, as a leader, to say you’re also struggling with this, and you don’t have all the answers,” says Williams.

When you’re physically apart, it can be more challenging to spot the changes that signal someone is struggling. Look for any shifts in their online behaviour or the way they communicate – such as their tone or language.

If you are concerned someone in your team or family is struggling, ask how they’re doing. This will never make things worse. Listen carefully, and reassure them it is completely normal to feels this way. “Validating their feelings can make a huge difference,” advises Dr Newby.

According to the World Economic Forum, providing a sense of time can also help – try phrases like ‘let's think of ways for you to get through these next few days.’4

“You can also link them to specialist help – GPs can provide a referral via telehealth, and psychologists and psychiatrists are doing phone or video call therapy,” suggests Dr Newby. Black Dog also provides self-directed online screening to guide people through a range of digital mental health programs, as well as resources for managing stress and anxiety .

Above all, it’s important to remember most people have built-in resilience. We’ve faced stress and uncertainty before, and developed coping skills to get through those times.

“At Macquarie, we’ve been working with Ben Crowe, mindset coach and director of Mojo Crowe”, says West. “One of the ideas he talks about is the power of acceptance. Once we accept the situation we find ourselves in, we can start to work positively within it.”

Perspective and performance in uncertain times

“Even though everything feels so unusual right now, it will get better,” says Dr Newby. The way we respond to the situation today will equip us emotionally to work through the recovery phase that will inevitably follow.

Learn more about Mindstar’s Work Well and Lead Well webinars at https://www.mindstar.com.au/leadwellworkwell/

Download resources to help you and your team manage stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis at https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/coronavirus-anxiety-resources

Additional information


Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19: The Australian context: Black Dog Institute (reference Bults, M., et al., Perceptions and behavioral responses of the general public during the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic: a systematic review. Disaster Med Public Health Prep, 2015. 9(2): p. 207-19.)


Facts & figures about mental health, Black Dog Institute (ABS data)