by Mike Pongon — November 10, 2020

How are you doing these days? Are you OK?

I ask because we’re living at a time when nothing seems the same as it was only a year ago. We couldn’t have imagined the daily lives we take for granted would suddenly be so limited by a global pandemic. Many months on, we’re still dealing with this public health emergency, which is compounded by economic uncertainty and social/political unrest. 

Going through this crisis, and seeing those around me struggle, has been one of the biggest challenges of my career. I know I’m not alone. This is the biggest test most of us will ever face as leaders. We need to be mentally healthy in order to make decisions, move forward, and focus on the future with hope, excitement and inspiration. That means we need to recognize when we’re in a bad spot and ask for help when we need it.

More and more, I’m learning the truth of that old adage, “You have to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.” As I look for ways to manage my own mental health, I’ve landed on a few things that make me healthier and more resilient as a leader. Maybe they can do the same for you.

Find your people, and reach out.

Early on, I knew I needed to feel connected to my friends in the business world. A small group of us started talking (virtually on Zoom) about what was going on. When I told them I wasn’t feeling OK but couldn’t really put a label on it, several others said they felt the same way. Acknowledging that “something really feels different” opened up a conversation. We started meeting every other Monday, riding Peloton bikes together, having happy hours, and really—really—checking in with each other. When one of us is having a hard time, we work as a group to reach out and make sure that person has what they need. These people have been invaluable to me. 

So, find your people, and start a real conversation. While it may seem paradoxical, one of the best ways I’ve found to “take care of myself first” is actually to focus on others. When I dwell too much on myself, I tend to get stressed. When I focus on others and what I can do for them, I relax. Change your focus and see how you feel.

Draw bright lines around your work and your life.

A leader’s work is expansive and endless. With so many normal activities turned off due to the pandemic, it’s easier than ever for work to take over your life. 

I draw very bright lines around my work so I can keep my personal life separate and sacred. It doesn’t always work out, but most days I don’t respond to email when I’m done with my workday. I keep a desktop computer so I can’t drag my laptop into a room where my family is having a conversation. I try not to send emails late at night or on weekends to respect my colleagues’ bright lines.  If I decide to work beyond my workday, I set goals and timebox them: I’m going to close out 10 emails or finish preparing for a board meeting, and spend one hour doing it.

Everyone’s bright lines are different, and you may need to redraw yours from time to time. The key is to be explicit. Prioritize your time. Decide what you will and won’t do, then set goals and limits to keep those lines bright.

Of course, if you draw bright lines around work but have no life to get to, you’re probably just going to work. Which leads to my next tip.

Do something new.

With so many normal activities shut down, you may need to find healthy new outlets for your time and energy. I’m doing more of the things I already know are good for me—getting outdoors, exercising, and doing things with my family. But I’ve also taken on a new role: the household cook. A number of challenging things happened in my family when the pandemic hit, and what began out of necessity has become a thing of delight. For me, cooking is a stress reliever that keeps my mind busy and flexes a whole new set of mental muscles.

If you can’t take on a new daily activity like cooking, try your hand at a new project. Although I’ve never built a dining table in my life, I’m making one now for my niece and her fiancé. It’s gratifying to study the plans, choose the materials, and create something tangible for their first home together.

Take this opportunity to try something new, and see where it takes you.

Give yourself permission to have a bad day.

We all have bad days. It’s part of being human. Being OK with that gives others permission to be human, too. After all, people don’t want to work for people who are perfect; they want to work for people who are genuine.

That said, I try to keep a close eye on how I’m doing mentally. If I’m not feeling myself or am in a particularly tough spot, I try very hard not to ignore how I feel on those days. I’ve found that acknowledging those tough spots and sitting with them for a moment is the best way to see them, feel them, and get past them.

Look for those silver linings.

This is a very individual tactic for managing mental health. Silver linings mean different things for each of us. I want to see the bright, inspiring future, and when I need a little help to get there, I look to words of inspiration.

One of my favorites is simply, “Solve today,” something a former boss used to say. As a CEO, it’s my job to think big and look forward. But sometimes, I need to allow myself to be in the day and solve the problems right in front of me. Even when the path forward looks foggy, I find I can take a few steps in the direction I need to go. Solving today clears the way to see tomorrow. 

Another inspiration comes from my wife: “Find joy every day.” It could be seeing your new baby niece on Zoom or calling your mom. Getting out in nature—even a short walk—can be a source of joy.

Speaking of silver linings, I’d love to see us break the taboo around discussing mental health and vulnerability—not only for our own sake, but for the sake of others, too. Yes, we’ve got to be tough, but we also need to be vulnerable. The world needs us to be ambidextrous leaders, to be tough and be able to feel things. Empathy connects you to others, and that connection will always be the deep heart of great leadership—in good times and bad.