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Lynne Oldham - March 24, 2020
Katherine Switz Headshot
Katherine Switz

Triggered: Managing Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19: Q&A with Katherine Switz

Katherine Switz is the founder and executive director of the Stability Network, an emerging movement of people in the workforce speaking publicly about their own mental health challenges in order to inspire and encourage others. With a Harvard Business School MBA, Switz, who lives with bipolar 1 disorder, led major international development organizations across Russia, India, and Africa and also held positions at McKinsey & Company and General Electric.

Q: How is the coronavirus crisis impacting the work lives of people coping with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorders? 
A: The impact is profound. The daily work of managing a mental health condition (from getting prescriptions to having face-to-face meetings with doctors and therapists) is more challenging. Plus, now there are more triggers, such as fear, uncertainty about the future, and social isolation. Employees who can’t go to their workplaces have lost social support and contact with people. And there are new stresses of working from home and perhaps also taking care of children or other family members.

Meanwhile, people with undiagnosed conditions and those who do not normally have mental health issues are also experiencing anxiety, stress, trauma, and depression. These groups may have no treatment or self-care strategies in place to help them. 

Q: How can companies create supportive environments at this time?
A: Set an example of compassion by acknowledging that this is a hard time for everyone. I think that when executives and leaders talk openly about mental health issues, their willingness to be honest and vulnerable helps destigmatize the issue. That can be a silver lining that will last beyond this crisis.

Employers can make sure people know about the resources available to them, such as crisis lines and remote therapy. And because it’s natural that employees may feel overwhelmed by work expectations when there’s so much uncertainty, managers can set clear, manageable goals–what can be done today or this week.
Self-care makes a big difference. I want to share some real hope about this. Many people living and working with mental health conditions have developed support systems and self-care strategies in place that are standing them in good stead now. Employers can let their employees know they support taking time for self-care and can share strategies. Below I've shared some that work well for me.

Q: What should employers and managers do when they notice an employee is displaying high levels of stress, depression, or other mental health challenges?

A: Ask people how they are. If you’re noticing issues, ask what they need. It may be an afternoon off, a different work schedule to accommodate children or family needs. I’m not suggesting companies drop expectations. Helping someone prioritize, work smarter, or address something in a new way can help them be productive. Reassurance that they’re doing a good job and that everyone’s pulling together through this difficult time is foundational, too.

Q: People with mental health conditions are not a monolithic group. Can you talk about differences such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, and mental health?

A: Accessing adequate and appropriate mental health care is difficult overall. It can be compounded by challenges related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Stigma, economics, and a lack of culturally competent treatment options are just some of the reasons why.

For example, men are less likely than women to seek help for mental health concerns. Just 30 to 33% of Asian, Hispanic, and African-Americans with a mental health issue receive treatment compared to 49% of Caucasians, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. And health disparities in the LGBTQ community include large mental-health treatment gaps. We know that transgender people have a much higher rate of suicide than the larger population.

Q:  What resources can help employers fine-tune their mental-health support for employees now–and in the future?

A: Two good organizations are the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health and One Mind at Work, which gather leaders from around the world to work toward treating mental health on par with physical health.

Q. Untreated mental health conditions cost the economy $200 billion in lost earnings each year through decreased work performance and productivity.  Can we use this moment as an opportunity to be more inclusive of employees facing mental health challenges?

A: This is absolutely an opportunity for employers to look at mental health more holistically and find all the ways we can support people besides just giving them a referral. This crisis can transform workplace culture for the better, so that people feel it’s OK to bring their whole selves to work--whether they already have a diagnosed mental health condition or are facing symptoms because of this unique time. Employers want to create environments where people can ask for what they need so they can be productive and healthy.


Coping With Covid: Self-Care That Really Helps
By Katherine Switz

Katherine Switz is the founder and executive director of the Stability Network, an emerging movement of people in the workforce speaking publicly about their own mental health challenges in order to inspire and encourage others. She practices these steps daily and finds them very helpful, as do others in the Stability Network.

  1. Validate your emotions. Noticing, naming, and accepting how you’re feeling can be difficult, but it’s the place to begin. If you start to notice a change in emotions, stop what you are doing and observe it. Let yourself feel the anxiety or uncertainty or fear. Then tell yourself what you are feeling and accept that you are feeling it. Don’t push it away.
  2. Process your feelings. Daily meditation can help you get your emotions in perspective and restore balance. You may not be a natural meditator (I am not), but try setting a timer for ten minutes. Then just sit and breathe calmly, observing your breath and letting the time wash over you. During the COVID-19 crisis, I have been meditating for an hour a day.
  3. Move your body. So many people in the Stability Network find that exercise makes a major difference. It can relieve stress, increase levels of brain chemicals that promote positive emotions, and just get you away from your desk, your phone, or the news. I’m taking a 45-minute brisk walk in the morning, then riding an exercise bike in the afternoon. Sweat helps!
  4. Set a routine. I have a schedule with my six-year-old son. We have times to get dressed, exercise, eat meals, work, or play. It gives both of us tremendous solace. When times are difficult, it’s good knowing what to do next. You can focus on one do-able thing.
  5. Practice self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge that things are incredibly hard right now. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to have challenges.