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Mental Health & Wellness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

23 April 2020

By By Emily Christmas, BSc. (Hons) MREC CertRP, Assoc. CIPD

Mental Health & Wellness During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Over the course of the last few weeks Carrington West has been focusing on the health and wellbeing of our staff as we adapt to unusual and unexpected working conditions. As a company we have always placed a great deal of importance on the nurturing and growth of everyone who works for us and this includes actively encouraging our teams to openly speak about how we can help them approach mental and physical health in the workplace and beyond. Our senior team have attended workshops run by leading mental health charity MIND (Havant & East Hants branch), and the implementation of our wellness action plans are more important in times when many people are facing additional fears and worry at this time.

Working remotely or in smaller groups due to social distancing can prove a difficult adjustment for many workers. As a manager, it is important to understand that just because we may have the tools to be able to physically fulfil ‘business as normal’, for many people it is far from a normal situation.

Even if you have not received formal training to deal with mental health issues in the workplace, look out for the signs may signify a potential problem. Once you become aware these you need to decide if it is appropriate to engage additional help or advice. There are a number of resources that maybe available to you and your team member, so in the first instance we recommend you contact your human resources department or, in the case of contract or temporary workers, your recruitment partner.

In the absence of formal wellness actions plans specifically designed for Covid-19, here are a few suggestions that will help identify problems and ask the right questions so you can provide the basis for your team to stay happy and healthy.

Facilitate communication and activities that help people do their jobs and replicate some of the positive social interactions they are missing.

Isolation is the buzz word of the year, but avoiding getting ill is very different to the kind of isolation your team will feel when they are physically distanced from their colleagues. It is worth remembering that in a different situation working from home or in a quiet space can be very productive, but even if this is the case, isolation from family and friends is still an issue that will likely affect mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Creating a plan so everyone in your team has access to frequent interaction is key. The nature of these will vary dependent on roles and responsibilities, but a timetable of activity that allows for managers to be accessible to answer all work-related problems as well as socially orientated interactions is a good place to start.

Such a plan can include anything from daily team meetings, signing your teams up to career development webinars to help them stay motivated, facilitating online fitness programs or even hosting a virtual pub quiz. Not everything will be appealing, but involving them in the plan will help tailor something suitable for all.

Communicate the options available

You may not be the person that your team will want to turn to if they are having problems, and that is not a reflection on you or your role. The best managers will understand this and lay out the options for their team before the need arises. As part of the long list of communications and adjustments that are being made during the pandemic, providing your workers with their options pre-emptively will help them help themselves if they are in need. Raise the issue in a group forum and give them the information and tools they need whether it is information or knowledge to help them motivate themselves to do their work, the tools to access support from you, HR teams or medical experts if available. Make it is easy for them to say “I need help” at any time, and help people understand this is a unique situation and they are not alone. Simple ideas include sharing as a team on a regular basis, maybe 5 minutes at the end of every meeting for example, tips to help with motivation, sleep, relaxation or having fun.

Video meetings are key and should be frequent and in small groups or one-on-one.

Line managers who know their staff and regularly hold video catch-ups or supervision meetings to monitor work and well-being are better placed to spot any signs of stress or poor mental health at an early stage, even through the screen. Often the key is a change in typical behaviour.

Symptoms will vary, as each person’s experience of poor mental health is different, but there are some potential indicators to look out for that can still be seen through consistent interaction. The below list is not exhaustive, but it offers some useful pointers.

Physical changes – sweating, weight change, fatigue, nervousness, visible trembling

Psychological changes – anxiety, mood changes, indecision, loss of motivation, memory lapses, fearfulness, illogical or irrational thoughts, difficulty relaxing

Behavioural changes – withdrawal, resigned attitude, increase in smoking and drinking, restlessness, intense or obsessive activity, over-excitement or euphoria, impaired or inconsistent performance, uncharacteristic problems with colleagues, uncharacteristic errors in work, restlessness, risk-taking, repetitive speech or activity, apparent over-reactions to problems.

If one or more of these signs is observed, this does not automatically mean the employee has a mental health problem, it could be a sign of another health issue or something else entirely. Always take care not to make assumptions or listen to third party gossip and talk to the person directly. The main sign of poor mental health is a change in that individual’s behaviour.

Address the issue immediately

As soon as you see a potential issue you must act. Basic good people management and the use of empathy and common sense by managers lie at the heart of effective management of mental health in the workplace. If an individual does not trust their line manager, they are unlikely to want to discuss a sensitive issue such as mental health with them.

While mental ill health is a sensitive and personal issue, like any health problem, most people prefer honest and open enquiries over reluctance to address the issue. Shying away from the subject can perpetuate fear of stigma and increase feelings of anxiety. Often employees will not feel confident in speaking up, so the onus is on a manager making the first move to start a dialogue.

Questions should be simple, open and non-judgemental to give the employee ample opportunity to explain the situation in their own words. If there are specific grounds for concern, such as impaired performance, it’s important to address these at an early stage, but in all cases people should be treated in the same way as someone with a physical health condition. A good starting point is asking how they are.

Questions to ask

•How are you doing at the moment?

•You seem a bit down/upset/under pressure/frustrated/angry. Is everything ok?

•I’ve noticed the reports are late when they are usually not. Is everything ok?

•Is there anything I can do to help?

•What support do you think might help?

•Have you spoken to your GP or looking for help anywhere else?

If someone does talk about poor mental health

•Listen without interrupting

•Ask appropriate questions to make sure both you and the other person are clear on what is being said

•Listen to the persons words, but also their tone of voice and body language

•Check your understanding of what is being said by restating what the person has said

•Summarise facts and feelings

•Minimal prompts such as “mm” or “ah” to keep the conversation going

•Be ok with long pauses – they may be thinking or lost for words, and by saying something to fill the silence you may break the chain of thought or rapport.

•Be attentive

•Even over video try and make eye contact comfortably (not staring or avoiding)

•Open body position (try to not cross arms over body)

•Look relaxed yourself and be sitting down (even if they aren’t, you will feel less threatening)

Useful Links

There are many resources online to help you have a deeper understanding of how you can support your employees’ mental health and wellbeing. We all hope Covid-19 will quickly become a thing of the past, but if there is a positive to come of the pandemic, it is that the need to look after and talk to our colleagues about mental health is important now but also in the future.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-public-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing

https://www.mind.org.uk/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/mental-health-workplace

https://www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/workplace-mental-health/understanding-mental-health-problems/signs-poor-mental-health

https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/

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