Mental Health Matters More Than Ever

October 6, 2022 • Linda K. Monroe

A supportive and safe environment. Opportunities for professional development and growth. The ability to cultivate work-life harmony. These are the hallmarks of a workplace that prioritizes the mental and emotional well-being of its workers. In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the workplace, even as more employees return to in-person work following the pandemic’s twists and turns, a focus on employee well-being is more important than ever. 

According to findings from a 2022 Stress in America poll conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based American Psychological Association (APA), “Equipping workers to manage daily stress and handle the inevitable challenges that affect their mental health costs money, time and energy. But, evidence shows that the cost of failing to support employees’ psychological well-being is often far higher.”

By taking key actions that support workers’ mental health, the report stated, employers can pave the way for a cultural shift that accepts and elevates help-seeking and other affirmative behaviors.

Research last year by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company echoes these sentiments. “Understanding, prioritizing, and planning for employees’ post-pandemic mental health is an important part of an organization’s return-to-work strategy,” the report said. According to McKinsey, as workplaces continue to shift to more in-person and hybrid approaches, many employees feel anxious about the unknown, including the potential for reduced autonomy, decreased flexibility and less supportive work environments.

With this in mind, it’s important for property professionals to support tenant companies as they provide reassurance to their employees about the next chapter of the workplace. And, with commercial property management itself a profession full of uncertainty even in the best of times, many of these lessons can be applied on the other side of the equation to benefit the mental health and well-being of property teams, too.

Varied Reactions to COVID-19

During his 42 years in commercial real estate, Joe Markling, BOMA Fellow, CPM, CRCMP, RPA, says the pandemic “was the strangest thing that happened to me, my staff and the industry. I have six people who work for me and they had six different reactions.”

Markling, now managing director and head of Real Estate Operations at USAA Real Estate, recalls that, for him, working remotely wasn’t difficult. Before COVID, he occasionally worked from home, but traveled extensively to meet people face-to-face. “However, not physically interacting with people did bother me quite a bit,” he says. The same was true for his team, which Markling describes as “a close-knit kind of family.”

“We are a work-in-the-office group, so remote work challenged all of us to stay focused and keep up our energy levels, although we kept in touch and tracked each other all the time,” he says. As a leader, Markling felt it challenging to mentor and develop his employees in an all-virtual environment, and he could feel his team’s mental and emotional well-being begin to flag.

“Unless you’ve been in the business a long time, you don’t understand that a lot of what you do is unsaid. I told my team the thing I felt most affected by during COVID closures was my ability to sense which way the wind was blowing, which comes from being here, walking around and watching and talking with people. Everybody was on their heels; everything felt like a priority. It was a very stressful time.”

This stress spilled over into virtual staff meetings, which paradoxically were scheduled to reduce uncertainty, provide context, share resources and then assign priorities—all of which can help keep stress at a minimum. “When you aren’t face to face, you may have a tendency to bark orders, create expectations and then click the leave button and walk away,” Markling adds. When everybody is working remotely, “it can become impersonal, and the lack of personal interaction is very harmful mentally for people.”

To relieve tensions and combat Zoom fatigue during closures, Markling and his team created a once-a-week in-person Thursday Lunch Club. “Physically being together, although it wasn’t mandatory, allowed us to laugh and joke, instead of participating in one-off meetings,” he says. “We still do that monthly, literally clock out for two hours.”

After two separate closures at their San Antonio office during the pandemic, Markling’s staff is no longer solely networking through Zoom. They are still communicating regularly, he said, but—happily, in his view—in the office. And, while USAA doesn’t offer regular work-for-home days, Markling says he allows each team member the occasional flexibility to do so, which, when needed, goes a long way in reducing stress.

Stress Triggers: Uncertainty and the Unknown

Tami Jaffe, a real estate consultant and success coach at her own firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, advises individuals about the physical manifestations of stress and how to identify, control and mitigate them. Just as Markling said his team of six had six different responses to the stress of the pandemic, Jaffe says individuals have unique responses to all different types of stressors. “People react to stress in different ways, so understanding and recognizing your triggers can help you to identify and then release stress,” she explains.
Not surprisingly, uncertainty and the unknown are universal triggers that placed an even heavier burden on everyone during the pandemic—particularly property management teams, who constantly were updating their building operations based on the latest guidance and directly shouldered the burden of keeping tenants safe. “Feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders” is an accurate description, Jaffe says, “because that area of your body—your neck, shoulders and back—really holds a lot of tension. That is your body giving you signs that there’s something you’re not letting go of, something that needs to change.”

Most people aren’t aware that they hold their breath during stressful times, Jaffe says. A simple physical exercise—box breathing—can aid in relaxing those tense muscles.

The four-step process, at four seconds each step, is to inhale, hold, exhale, then rest. “You can even intentionally think about your breath going to your shoulders or your back,” she adds.

In fact, “intentional” is a word Jaffe applies to many stress-reducing actions. “You have to be really intentional about taking breaks—making sure you build in the time,” Jaffe says. “People need time to let their mind and body relax.”

Outdoors also is healing, whether for a lunch break or a 10-minute afternoon walk, both of which are intentional choices, she says. Intentional actions can be tactical as well. Jaffe suggests that supervisors end an hour-long meeting at 50 minutes (or a 30-minute meeting at 25 minutes). Such intentional choices can provide a much-needed break for those attending.

“Some companies also have a two-hour window on a certain day that is considered a ‘meeting-free’ zone,” Jaffe says. “As long as everybody respects it, that practice gives people a little more freedom, flexibility and the space they might need.”

Leading The Way

At the end of the day, cultivating a workplace supportive of mental and emotional well-being will go far in hiring and, more importantly, retaining employees, a key consideration for all organizations, whether property management firms or tenant companies. Looking again at the report from the McKinsey, most of the employee respondents who reported they anticipated mental health challenges tied to post-pandemic workplace adjustments said policies that expanded workplace safety and flexibility could reduce their stress.

In addition, a focus on well-being can be particularly impactful when leaders set the example, say both Markling and Jaffe. Finding ways to reduce stress within yourself is the most important step in helping your staff reduce theirs. Intentionally setting a precedent, a practice, an exercise also will do wonders for your team—and for you.

“Leadership is about people, not outcomes,” Markling says. “If you develop really, really good people and guide them well—give them good context, reasonable deadlines, resources—your outcomes will be off the charts.”


 Linda K. Monroe  is a freelance writer and editorial project manager, was the former editorial director at BUILDINGS magazine from 1981-2008