Lucinda Carney, Chartered Occupational Psychologist and Founder at Actus, discusses the impact that self-isolation has on mental health and how businesses can minimise stress amongst its workforce
If you’re a business owner, HR manager or member of the C-suite that has had to make the decision to send your workforce home, and that workforce is now working successfully remotely, you’ve already achieved the previously unfathomable. Protecting your team’s physical and economic health amid a pandemic is no mean feat.
However, it is now time to switch our focus to preventing a knock-on explosion of mental health issues caused by the stress of new working circumstances that have been thrust upon us. According to last year’s CIPD report, less than half of organisations provided mental health training for both managers to support staff and staff to build personal resilience. If we want to avoid a follow up mental health crisis, we need to help managers and employees to reduce stress and recharge their batteries as much as possible.
Stress Awareness Month may have been held every April since 1992, but in 2020, amid COVID-19, this thirty-day period has extra significance. The causes for today’s modern stress epidemic are certainly clear. COVID-19 measures are impacting the wellbeing and mental health of many healthy people, let alone those with existing mental health issues.
When in uncharted territory it may be challenging to navigate our new routines, but rest assured that there are both tactical and practical things any leader can do to help manage stress amongst the workforce in these unprecedented times. An investment in your people is ultimately an investment in your business, and the idea that both businesses and employees may emerge stronger and happier out of this crisis is certainly not beyond the realm of reality.
Recognise the new stressors
Everyone feels stressed from time to time, but now more than ever, business owners, HR managers and the C-suite alike need to prioritise wellbeing including their own. With people moving to remote working en masse, there has been a huge increase in virtual meetings and conferencing. While these tools are fantastic for maintaining connectivity, the pressure to communicate and to be ‘seen to be available’ at all times can increase. Many people may be putting on a brave face to downplay the pressures of a less than ideal working environment without the respite of childcare. Working life is going to be very different for at least a few months and this sustained pressure is bound to take a toll.
According to Health and Safety Executive, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work. As leaders, we need to be alert and empathetic to these sustained pressures that our workforce may have not even recognised themselves.
Sudden imposed change, lack of control and lack of social contact can be triggers to anxiety, and this may manifest itself physically. Feeling fatigued easily, having difficulty concentrating, or experiencing muscle tension or heart palpitations are all signs of physical stress. Sleep difficulties are also another common sign. As time goes on, these symptoms can compound resulting in longer-term mental health issues which could provide a further threat to UK productivity. An HSE-suggested Risk Assessment is a great way to start identifying main stressors among your employees.
In 2019, CIPD reported that a poor management style was responsible for 43% of sickness absence. Without the relief of face to face interaction with colleagues, the impact of poor management behaviours could be compounded. This is a critical time to upskill our managers and clarify the importance of demonstrating empathy and flexibility in these times – it is not a time for presenteeism.
If you have a large workforce, it may be difficult to check in daily with employees, so adapt a mass methodology: communicate to everyone that these physical symptoms are normal given the circumstances, and address the situation with acceptance. Even though we have nowhere to go, taking annual leave is a great idea, perhaps even broken up into chunks throughout the week. Switching off, taking exercise or spending guilt-free time with children may be just what employees need in order to fire on all cylinders when it’s time to get back to work.
In March, Boris Johnson thanked the over 500,000 people who volunteered to help the NHS during this crisis. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took a moment to reassure and thank children for being patient, and for helping their parents. These gestures serve as a powerful reminder of how impactful it is to recognise people of all walks in life, and their individual circumstances.
Remember to thank your workforce for the sacrifices they are making, and to recognise their individual circumstances. Those with children are no doubt performing nothing short of a miraculous juggling act at the moment, while those who are solo may also be facing challenges of loneliness. Other households may be dealing with shared custody and grief over not seeing relatives. Many people are dealing with COVID-19 itself.
Now is the time to recognise everyone’s circumstances and to assure your workforce that they are not alone. In the long run, a little understanding will go a long way to aid the happiness of your workforce, and to positively contribute to business continuity. By removing stress, we can help employees to keep adding value to reach personal and organisational goals.
All change, please
Ultimately, the fact is we may all be working remotely for some time, and ideally, we’d like to get to a place where organisational growth can continue. Minimising work-related stress when there are so many external pressures is going to be a key investment in that future.
Now is the time to help employees focus on what they can control. Leaders and HR managers need to be encouraging employees to create routines and schedules that work for them, in a way that ensures maximum productivity. Encourage increased communication electronically to increase social contact. Communicate the positives of getting fresh air and exercise. Virtual pub quizzes and exercise classes are becoming commonplace and boosting mental health in this challenging time.
Sudden change to working practices is testing us like never before, but as leaders, we have the opportunity to set the tone. It is natural to grieve for the loss of normality amid a time of extreme change. However, it is also an opportunity for line managers to rediscover their humanity because by being more person-centric we can reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 becoming a serious mental health pandemic, and increase the likelihood of more productive employees, and demonstrable business growth and transformation.
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