The lockdown has affected the mental health of many South Africans, writes Amy Haworth, Chief of Staff for Human Resources at Citrix. The most commonly experienced emotion has been stress (57%) and fear (43%). Only 13% of the population has experienced happiness during this period, according to an ongoing survey on the public perceptions of the economic, social and political impact of Covid-19 on life across the country.

With a large segment of the population now working from home, working virtually means that the cues we used to get about each other’s wellbeing aren’t the same as they were in the office. We’ve had to adapt, from spontaneous chats in the break room to a scheduled webcam meeting or an ad hoc chat message on Slack or Skype.

“How are you doing?” used to be a casual way to connect. Now, that question has a different, deeper, meaning. That question has to do more work. After all, we really want to know. Really.

Well, at least some of us want to know. Sadly, Qualtrics discovered in a recent survey -The Other COVID-19 Crisis: Mental Health – that a lot of companies aren’t even asking.

  • 38.2 percent of the 2,000 respondents said their company has not asked them if they are doing OK. (Those who said their company has reached out indicated that a direct call from their manager was the most effective way to check in.)
  • Yet, the survey also pointed out that 41 percent of employees want managers to proactively ask how they are faring. Not only that, but 57.7 percent are comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health.

So, what do we do?

We ask better questions.

Let’s start with “How are you doing?” The problem? It puts the burden on the respondent. They have to decide: 1) if you are sincere 2) how much is safe to share, and 3) how much time you actually have. (If this question is asked during a scheduled 1:1, the respondent is now weighing the priority of work discussion against the priority of giving you an open, honest response.)

To get a better answer, to demonstrate our sincerity, and to truly support employees, we can:

  • Get more specific: “How are you doing?” is way too broad. The questions that get better answers are narrow. “How is [child’s name] doing with virtual school?” “What new routines or habits have started in your day?” “What are you finding is the challenge you didn’t expect?” Tip: Take 10 minutes and make a list of questions. Don’t wait until you are face to face via webcam to come up with a question.
  • Share something about yourself: Trust is a product of connection. Connection is the result of vulnerability. If you’re not willing to share the highs and lows — the moments of growth and the moments of joy – why would anyone feel safe sharing with you? Consider opening the conversation with a story from your own life or by sharing what’s been hard for you this week, coupled with something that has brought you gratitude. Then, see what is gifted back to you. Tip: If you’re finding this hard at first, don’t give up. Building a “trust account” with a person happens one deposit at a time.
  • Listen, don’t fix: Sharing honestly doesn’t mean people want you to fix it. Challenge yourself to acknowledge and validate that whatever someone is feeling is normal given the circumstances. Tip: If you’re a natural-born fixer, try this instead:
    1. Ask further questions: Start your sentence with any of these for decent results: Do you think that … ? What would happen if … ? Can you tell me more?
    2. Acknowledge and validate: An easy framework you can use to acknowledge and validate any situation is: “Given _________, it’s perfectly normal that _________. For example, “Given that you’ve had to take on so much at home, it’s perfectly normal that you’d feel exhausted.”
    3. Reflect back: If a person tells you something personal, like he’s concerned his spouse might lose his job and it’s weighing on him, all you actually have to do to is to reflect back what the person just told you: “The concern for what that might mean is weighing on you.”

What to do with what you hear

My guess is that one reason more managers aren’t asking about an employee’s wellbeing is that most of us feel ill-equipped to deal with honest responses. What happens if people get emotional? What happens if there is a mental health concern and we don’t know what to do?

The leadership development gurus at BTS recently provided a great framework to help managers partner with employees to process emotion: ETC (Emotions – Truth – Choice). Taking a deep breath is interspersed between E, T, and C. Taking a breath between each step calms highly emotional situations by naturally short-circuiting the stress response in our brain (fight-or-flight) allowing the person to access problem solving capabilities.

  • Emotions: Ask the person to name the emotions. Labeling them decreases the power they have.


  • Truth: Ask the person to reflect on what is really true in what they just shared.


  • Choice: Ask “So what do you want to do about this?”

In the current situation, every manager also needs to invest time in understanding the organisation’s mental health benefits and resources, like an employee assistance program (EAP). Like most EAP programs, at Citrix, ours goes far beyond counseling services alone. If you manage people and have never called the EAP, you need to. You absolutely need to understand the experience so that you can authentically encourage someone to use the benefit.

If you find you have concerns about a person’s mental health (depression, anxiety, or complexity of issue) encourage the individual to leverage the EAP program. A trained mental health professional is available to be part of the individual’s support system.

Now it’s up to you

Remote work doesn’t mean we have to settle for loneliness, disconnection, or shallow chit chat. If you’re a leader or manager, your team needs you to engage them in a meaningful dialogue about the ways they’re growing and being challenged. Let the next few weeks be the weeks you experiment with new questions and sincere listening. And perhaps you’ll discover a new level of connectedness during a time when the physical distance between employees has never been greater.

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