Repeated lockdowns mean that many businesses are struggling, but it is the people who run them - from sole traders to large teams - who bear the brunt of this crisis. The cracks in the mental health system are only growing larger, and employers increasingly have a role to play in supporting their employees' wellbeing.
How can businesses better care for their people, and how can leaders create healthier workplaces? We spoke with Khiarn Raymond, a provisional psychologist at B Corp Osana Care to share lessons for navigating mental health and wellbeing at work during the pandemic.
Wellbeing & work
B Lab: One part of this pandemic is not only seeing a glimpse into your coworkers' personal lives - through their living room or bedroom as a Zoom backdrop - but also seeing how people can react so differently to stress or a crisis. What worries me is that people are struggling to be open about how they're truly feeling on a day to day basis. How can leaders create better workplaces for their teams to feel comfortable sharing when they are going through a hard time?
Khiarn: As a leader, it is so important to ensure that employees feel comfortable sharing with you if they are going through a hard time. Employees need to feel that you have time for these discussions and that these discussions can take place in a non-judgemental space.
Often, the most effective way to do so is to create a regular time to "check-in" with employees and each other.
Even a 5 minute acknowledgement of where someone is at mentally in their week, and what they need in terms of support or self care, can be a great routine to help people communicate, acknowledge their own struggles, and encourage openness about how it may impact their day or their week.
Some find that this works best as a 1:1 conversation, whereas others find this to be a good way to kick off a team meeting. Whatever you choose to do, make sure that the time is scheduled and stuck to.
B Lab: To cope with stress - during lockdowns in particular - some people throw themselves into their work, while others withdraw or find themselves unmotivated. What are some things people can do to restore a healthy relationship with work?
Khiarn: We can start by defining what a healthy relationship with work is. It's often characterised by setting clear, realistic boundaries to balance time between work and life in a way that works for the individual. In the past, many people used physical distance between work and home to help set these boundaries.
During lockdown, many people are having to juggle additional life responsibilities such as childcare, homeschooling, family health issues or their own health concerns, family financial stressors, and difficulty enjoying 'free-time' to name a few. As a result, setting boundaries on work hours and access to work emails or calls is all the more important - but all the more stressful and tricky! Our routines have changed and so must the way that we put these boundaries in place.
If you are working from home, we recommend blocking out your diary with reasonable time to be spent on each life area (e.g. family, health, finance) and ensure there is some positive and restorative "me" time. That might look like having a bath, going for a walk, undertaking a hobby, or watching a favourite tv show. Even if this is only 15 or 30 minutes, being intentional with your personal schedule in the same way that you schedule work meetings is important.
B Lab: Do you think leaders should encourage their teams to take a mental health day in the same way they would take a sick day?
Khiarn: Yes, we need mental health days more than ever! In the same way that a sick day can help the person recover quicker in a home environment, by reducing stress on the body and allowing time to rest, a mental health day helps the person the same way.
A mental health day has been shown to prevent burnout, improve workplace relationships and improve motivation and productivity at work.
COVID-19 is an unpredicted stressor that is affecting mental health at a community wide level, de-stigmatising mental health days is a must.
Navigating a lockdown
B Lab: Some of us have been in lockdown for weeks or months. Do you have any advice for people experiencing lockdown fatigue, which is sometimes expressed as growing frustration or hopelessness with the situation?
Khiarn: By now most people will have received countless emails or seen countless social media posts referring to ‘the new normal’ or ‘creating a new normal’. For those experiencing lockdown fatigue this may be becoming increasingly frustrating.
A few small strategies that can help with managing lockdown fatigue are:
Creating a new routine of activities such as a morning walk to replace the daily commute, regular virtual coffee dates, and phone call catch ups with loved ones. If you like variety in your life, you could try a different routine for different days of the week.
Finding new creative online ways of bringing what we miss into our lives again or taking up a new hobby. You can find many online options, like gym classes, yoga, knitting, crafts, skill building - all of which can be done virtually with others.
Another difficult but helpful strategy is practicing acceptance of today, just one day at a time. This can be done by naming what is in our control today and deciding how we are going to respond to it, or refocusing our emotional and physical energy on a task or activity that will bring us enjoyment, accomplishment, or connectedness.
B Lab: What preventative measures do you recommend people take for their mental and physical wellbeing during lockdown?
Khiarn: The best things that people can do during lockdown to take care of their mental and physical wellbeing are to stay connected with others, communicate with others about how you are feeling, and check- in with yourself each day. This can help inform what you take on for the day, help inform how we interact with others in the day, and helps set realistic expectations.
An example of a daily check-in with yourself might include asking yourself the following questions in the morning, before starting the day: "What was the quality of my sleep? What emotion am I feeling most this morning? Where in my body do I feel emotion? What might be the reasons for feeling like this? What do I need today?"
Re-emerging from lockdown
B Lab: As people start returning to offices after lockdowns, some may have some anxieties about COVID, either in the office or commuting to and from work. What are some things managers and leaders can do to make sure their employees are comfortable at work?
Khiarn: As a manager and leader, there are some key things that you can do to help employees manage the transition back to work:
Communicate clearly and frequently about expectations and responsibilities of COVID-19 protocols to avoid confusion.
Provide support service options to help normalise mental health struggles, even after lockdown. This includes reminding staff of your employee assistance program, directing staff to available resources, and so on.
Open a space where people can voice their concerns safely about COVID matters and encourage your team to use it.
B Lab: After lockdowns, it can be hard to readjust into social situations. Do you have any advice for people struggling with feelings of isolation or anxiousness while returning to work and social life?
Khiarn: After a period of lockdown and low social interaction, it is common for people to be feeling this way - if you are, it is likely that other people you know are too! Identify some people, even if it's just one person, whom you feel comfortable sharing these worries and social discomforts with. Chances are they have had similar thoughts or know others who feel the same way.
This is one of those tricky ones where connection is the answer to isolation, but building that connection takes courage and a safe space. Once we can name the emotions that we are experiencing and gradually build our social interactions up again, the easier it will get, week-by-week.