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July 3, 2020

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mental health

Supporting the mental health of your workforce during the pandemic

Lynn Willacy, Employee Engagement Ambassador at Air Products, talks about the most common challenges faced by staff and shares her advice for providing support during this difficult time.

Lynn WillacyAs you would expect from a global organisation involved in the manufacture of industrial gases, we are extremely well prepared for a crisis. Our business continuity plans are thorough and regularly reviewed and maintaining excellent health and safety standards is our primary focus. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK in early March, our crisis management plans were implemented, our business operations were quickly adapted to a new way of working and we were able to focus on maintaining our service levels. At an operational level, we were prepared. But one thing that is very hard to predict is the impact that a crisis can have on the mental health of your staff – particularly when it is of the magnitude of COVID-19.

What sets this pandemic apart from other situations we have had to deal with in the past is that not only has it has affected every single one of us, it has reached into every aspect of our lives – and that can make it difficult to cope with. As a shielded worker myself, I know first-hand how challenging self-isolation has been. We were also aware that, on top of dealing with their personal emotions, many of our employees were having to manage relationships with our customers, some of whom were also experiencing very challenging times for their businesses. As a responsible employer, we take the wellbeing of our staff seriously at all times, but we quickly recognised that some additional support for those most affected, particularly our customer-facing teams, would help them build their resilience and focus on maintaining an empathetic and constructive mindset when dealing with potentially stressful situations.

Virtual sessions

video conferenceAs is often the case with issues relating to mental health and wellbeing, we felt the best thing we could do quickly – and given the logistical constraints – was to offer our employees a forum to share their feelings and discuss coping-mechanisms together. So, we set up a series of virtual sessions bringing together small groups of employees to discuss how they could support their customers, and each other, during these challenging times.

To date, around 220 people have participated with some talking very openly about their feelings and others preferring to listen and reflect inwardly. What quickly became clear, was that the experience of lockdown and working from home has affected all of us differently and that the stress and anxiety triggers were many and varied.

As you would expect, for our working parents, juggling home-schooling with work has been a real challenge. Meanwhile, others who live with key workers or have been caring for vulnerable relatives have also found it difficult to balance work with their personal responsibilities. Our approach here was to discuss how flexible working could provide a solution, for example by changing working hours or shift patterns where possible to fit in around other family circumstances.

The sudden and dramatic change to our daily routines also proved difficult for some to manage and working from home every day has made some people feel like they are ‘always on’. As a result, it has become hard to switch off and leave work behind, particularly during the first few weeks of lockdown when the days blurred into one. One of our participants even logged on to work on a Sunday, thinking it was a weekday! To mitigate this, we talked about the importance of keeping to a normal working routine where possible and provided some simple advice like turning off the computer at the end of the working day and putting it somewhere out of sight.

Isolation has been a much-discussed result of lockdown and, whether you live on your own or with other people, feeling alone can affect everyone so a common theme for discussion during our sessions was how much everyone was missing their colleagues. We all spend time chatting and joking with our co-workers when we’re in the office and the importance of that regular social interaction can’t be underestimated. Banter can be a big stress-reliever, as can having someone to offload to after a difficult phone call. We’re actively encouraging our teams to connect with each other over video calls – both for work and social conversations. Some teams have also set up WhatsApp groups to stay connected in an informal way, which I think is a great idea.

Working from home

Physical and wellbeing impacts of coronavirus

We’ve all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions over the last few months (it’s not become known as the Corona-Coaster for nothing!) and many of our participants talked about the physical and wellbeing impacts. Difficulty sleeping, feelings of stress and anxiety, health concerns for themselves, family or friends were all discussed, and this is where we focused on the importance of building our resilience. We shared advice on how to focus on things within our control which can make us feel stronger and more positive and how to better manage things outside our control, making us more able to cope with challenging circumstances. For example, by using breathing and exercise techniques to manage the physical signs of stress and anxiety; managing other people’s reactions by understanding their personality type and, therefore, what they need from you to diffuse their stress; and by asking for help – we’re all in this together and talking and sharing our experiences is one thing that will help us get through it together.

There are so many ways in which people have been, and continue to be, affected by COVID-19 that we all need to listen and care just that little bit more than normal. These sessions gave people an opportunity to open up and to hear how other people are feeling. Realising that everyone was experiencing similar feelings helped normalise their own emotions and that’s a powerful tool when building resilience. One of our participants summed it up really well: “I think it is all too easy to assume you and your teams are doing ok in the current circumstances and to underestimate the importance of a healthy body and a healthy mind. These support sessions allowed us to stop, breathe, talk and listen to how we are all doing – taking time to realise the importance of talking to one another and be reminded what support and guidance is out there if you are struggling. By recognising these things internally, it also helped us to recognise and support how our customers may be feeling.”

Ultimately, what has become clear to me as I’ve been facilitating these sessions is that there is no single solution we can offer everyone to help them manage this situation. However, if organisations can be flexible, understanding and show compassion towards their colleagues, then that will certainly help to bring some positivity to this challenging situation.

Workplace mental health – Putting it into practice

The Workplace Wellbeing Show recently produced a webinar entitled Workplace mental health – Putting it into practice, which discussed navigating the coronavirus pandemic and what psychological research into wellbeing tells us. The session, which featured Mind’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes (Strategy & Development), Faye McGuinness, HR consultant, Jan Golding, and Professor Ivan Robertson is now available to listen back to on demand, here.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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