As more staff move to remote working, it’s important for senior leaders to put plans and actions in place to safeguard the mental health of their workforce, and themselves.

The impact on our society by the coronavirus (COVID-19) has been swift, and continues to evolve. The disruption has been likened to a time of war where collectively we are unifying against a single external foe. During a time of such upheaval, in addition to the physical safety measures, there’s a need to pay special attention to the mental health of the individuals in our workforce.

Over the coming weeks and months people will experience a wide range of emotions. One person may be distressed and anxious this week and then okay the next, whereas someone else might be distressed in four weeks’ time.

Providing support during a time of physical distancing, when our workforces are working from home or in very different circumstances adds to the challenges we’re facing. However, the steps we take now will help the short and long term wellbeing of our staff, the success of our organisations and the vitality of our nation.

Maintain social connections

With a dramatic decline in face-to-face contact, we need to implement strategies to increase social connection amongst peers, colleagues and teams. Find ways to talk more often, share more often, and create the ‘water-cooler’ conversations that would normally occur in the workplace.

  • Starting online meetings with five minutes of non-work-related chatter, opening up by sharing something personal, and asking open questions to enable others.
  • Creating virtual communities based on shared interests or ‘neighbourhoods’, where staff live in the same area, to help build a sense of connection.
  • Establishing buddy systems to provide one-on-one connections between two individuals.

Communicate clearly and empathetically

In this fast moving environment there is a lot of over communicating, lots of messages, instant information, social media feeds, news flash updates. This type of fragmented and potentially unverified information can increase people’s feelings of anxiety and stress. You can help by creating regular, transparent and authentic communication plans. These should be consistent, factual and need-to-know information delivered in a controlled and timely way. Leaders need to focus on providing clear messaging around what they are doing for their staff, for the organisation in the near term, and business continuity plans post crisis. This all aims to reassure employees that their leaders are focused on their health and wellbeing now – and when the pandemic passes.

Importantly, communication channels need to be created that are two way and provide a mechanism for people to ask questions that they may feel are silly or unimportant and would be reluctant to ask in front of a larger group. Leaders will also need to empathetic to the range of personal circumstances that people have for example, some may have family members at home, may be immunosuppressed, have older relatives in aged care, may be pregnant or are new parents. Our personal lives are usually outside of the typical workplace knowledge but now must be genuinely taken into account.

Define expectations, and encourage agency

Give your employees the ability to make the best decisions that work for their unique work and personal situation. Working from home eliminates the usual barriers between work and home life, and with home situations changing, with kids to care for, or elderly parents needing assistance, leaders need to be empathic to their employee’s different home situations. Times that individuals can work, or how they can work at different times need to be considered and worked around. It is also important to encourage employees to set routines and boundaries. Daily morning stand ups may mark the start of the day for some employees, while for others, a set expectation of outputs by the end of the day might work better. By providing staff with information and tools you can enable them to make the best proactive social and personal actions – enabling them to drive their own decision making.

Put your own mask on first

Often senior executives work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep the wheels in motion during a crisis. They need to take the same mental self-care steps and set the tone for the rest of the organisation.

Setting up groups where they feel confident and comfortable to talk through strategic options will be important. Creating different relationship structures should also be considered, for example one of supervision or mentoring, or even with someone who is external to the organisation.

Acknowledge the uncertainty

Senior executives should also remember to rely on their teams and the people around them to share these new responsibilities – the circumstances we’re all navigating are unprecedented, so it’s important to rely on each other. While it is a natural response from leaders to want to be able to answer everyone’s questions with 100 per cent accuracy, now is the time to admit that no one has all the answers right now. This admission can actually assist in building trust with employees. It’s important to recognise that things will continue to change and evolve, but install a confidence that as much information as possible will be shared – even if that information might change the next day, or the next.

Practical actions

Each individual’s response to the current situation will change and evolve. Naturally some staff may be experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress. It’s important to remember that each individual’s circumstances will be different.

  • If there is any concern that someone is mentally unwell in the first instance leaders should have a meaningful conversation with them – via video if possible.
  • Check in and ask team members if they are OK and if they have the support they might need as a first step.
  • Leaders should be reminding their teams about access to any counselling support the organisation might offer, but also remind them of the other support services available online such as Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, headspace and others. It may even be necessary to share local mental health service contacts.

More connected while more distant

There is little doubt that the world will be a different place when society emerges from this crisis – in fact we’re already seeing communities evolve and adapt. In Spain communities have partaken in group fitness classes being hosted on balconies, in Italy villages are coming together to make music from their windows. Here in Australia, we’re seeing organisations start to implement new ways of working with entire workforces being transitioned between industries.

This pandemic has drastically changed the way our lives look now, and in the future, but we’re adapting fast. We’re in this together, and all levels of organisations should be looking for solutions that will help anyone caught in the middle of the crisis, and in preparation of the post crisis landscape.

If you or anyone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

If you have any questions regarding the content of this article and would like speak to someone from our team please contact us.