Editor’s Note: Harley Finkelstein is president of Shopify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The past year has stretched us to our capacity. People across the globe have faced physical health threats, struggled with job loss and economic uncertainty and watched as nearly every aspect of their daily lives was turned upside down.
For business leaders and entrepreneurs, these challenges have forced us to get creative about how we prioritize our own mental health and how we help our colleagues do the same.
I hope that part of the pandemic’s legacy will be greater awareness about mental health and more open dialogue, particularly in business.
As a “power extrovert,” I get my energy from being around other people. In the early days of working from home during the pandemic, I struggled. To come out on the other side, I had to make entirely new rituals and strategies to help myself and my team. This is what I’ve found to work well for me in the hopes it will be useful to others.
Take care of your own mental health first
We’ve all heard the oxygen mask analogy: You need to put yours on first before helping someone else. Through the pandemic, I’ve been worried about all of my employees — but if I’m not in a good place myself, I’ll never be able to help them.
To keep myself in a good place and improve my mental health, I took certain hobbies and made them rituals: morning walks with my dog, meditation, yoga and exercise. Every Sunday, I go for a walk with a friend with the sole purpose of discussing our mental health to prepare for the week ahead.
I’ve also begun scheduling absolutely everything in my day. Meals are in my calendar along with my morning walk. I even schedule time to think. Ruthless prioritization allows me to reduce the time I spend thinking about things that aren’t important, so I can focus on what is important. It’s the same reason I wear a black t-shirt every day — so that I have one less decision to make daily.
These are the things I need to do for myself so that I can lead others.
Move from work-life balance to work-life harmony
The antiquated notion of work-life balance doesn’t work in 2021. Seeking balance is almost impossible when your office is your home, when you give your work email out for personal things too and when your cell phone connects you to family, friends — and coworkers.
Moving toward work-life harmony, on the other hand, helps all aspects of life to co-exist.
The other morning, I went for my daily 7 a.m. walk with my dog and had a catch-up call with one of my team members. It wasn’t work, it wasn’t play, it was harmonious. Create rhythms in your day that work for you without being bound to the old-fashioned notion of work being entirely separate from your personal life.
Openly discuss mental health with your team
The more I told people I was struggling with my mental health early on in the pandemic, the more support I received. Why is it that we talk about the weather every day and never about mental health? We need to make mental health more like the weather, stripping away the weight of the topic so that it becomes a common subject. I’ve begun doing this with my team in a few ways.
First, I make sure to word my questions carefully. “How are you?” is likely going to get a generic “Good.” But if you ask, “How are you feeling today?” or, “What’s the most stressful part of your job?” or, “How can I be more helpful?,” you’ll get a more authentic response.
Also, while working remotely you don’t bump into people in the hallways, so you need to be intentional about making connections. Make yourself available. Host office hours where anyone can book a 15-minute slot with you, or host “lunch and learns” with teams where one person showcases a special skill even if it’s totally unrelated to work.
Leave these conversations open to serendipitous flow. You don’t always need an agenda. Host Ask Me Anything sessions, and see what people ask. This may show what’s on your colleagues’ minds, and it might be different than what you thought.
As a leader, your job isn’t always to act like you have it all together. The pandemic has been hard on everyone, and there will most certainly be other hard times ahead. Being open and honest with your team creates a space where others feel like they’re not alone in what they’re feeling. This way, they won’t feel as if they have to put up a front when they come to work.
Reach out to entrepreneurs
What if you don’t have a team, or a boss? Entrepreneurship has always been a lonely and challenging pursuit. Some work second jobs or are still in school. Many work exceptionally long hours, wear many hats because of small teams, and are constantly worried about their responsibilities and about “making it.” The stress of the pandemic has only compounded that.
A staggering 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues, compared to 48% of non-entrepreneurs. This study was done before the pandemic, and I can only imagine these numbers have gone up since then. For all the entrepreneurs reading this: Advocate for self-care for yourself and your team, forge relationships with others in leadership and entrepreneurship communities, and reach out for help when you need it.
It’s time to destigmatize mental health for entrepreneurs and leaders. Let’s make the question, “How are you coping?” as common as a comment about the weather. Take care of yourself and lead from a place of mental wellness as best you can.