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Supporting employees transition back into work after lockdown

As staff start to move back into office base working, either full time or start a roster of splitting their time between home based and office based ways of working, the impact on our workforce from a mental health perspective needs to be considered. In this article we will explore how you can support yourself and your employees to work well and keep mentally safe and sound.

There was the panic to get home within 48 hours while continuing to work, anxiety about job security, introduction of new roles such as home schooling, worries about a shortage of food and other household supplies and then we were thrown into an online world like we have never experienced before in business. There is no denying that the past few months have been challenging, no matter how resilient you feel you and your teams are.

Emerging research shows us that there are many detrimental psychological and physical effects of being in lock down. History, from the Christchurch earthquakes, shows us that it is not always the immediate effects of such trauma but the ongoing and long term effects that will continue to affect us as a society and a Nation for months, even years to come. However, there is a lot that you can do to support teams in the short term which should lessen the effects, on all of us, long term.

Mental health is often associated with mental illness. Addressing and caring for your mental health is not a sign of weakness, in fact in my eyes, in our society, verbalizing that you are caring for yourself and your teams mental wellbeing is indeed a sign of strength, greater awareness and shows real authentic leadership. The benefits of practicing self-care and mental wellbeing is well known within the health sector, but not often appreciated, practiced or well recognised in the business sector. Research shows us that that taking care of your mental health and wellbeing has the following benefits;

· Reduces stress and anxiety

· Increases productivity

· Improves mood

· Improves relationships and teamwork

But having conversations with your teams about their mental health can be difficult. People may not know exactly what feelings they are feeling, what help if any, that they need, or if they indeed feel well they might not actually recognise what’s working for them at the moment to feel so well, so that when they feel down, anxious or tearful, what they need to do to feel well again.

It actually takes time and energy to understand what your mental health needs are, and as a leader it's best to understand your own needs before you start exploring and supporting others. Resilient mental wellbeing varies for everyone depending on their circumstances but is certainly worth exploring with staff regardless.

One place to start exploring mental wellbeing is asking how a person is – not just a “how are you?” like you would say to someone in a shop, a half hearted ‘how are you’ but a genuine line of enquiry into how they really are and then taking the time to mindfully listen to their answers. Some questions I have found useful in supporting people through this COVID time have been

· What has been good about this COVID/lockdown period for you that surprises you?

· What has been difficult about this time that surprises you?

· What is working well for you about working from home and what is not?

· How are you taking care of yourself today?

· What’s something that you don’t miss, (either work related or not), that surprises you?

· What has been the easiest part about quarantine for you?

· What is the best thing that has happened to you today?

Through this line of enquiry, not only will you gain a deeper understanding of your staff member and teammate but you’ll actually start learning more about your business as well. It takes time, it takes courage and it takes practice – to ask, and listen… to listen more than participate in the conversation – you may have heard of the two ears one mouth concept – listen more than you talk. Trying to answer these questions for yourself will prepare you for asking others. Recognising which parts are particularly difficult, or understanding just how you feel about them, is an important step in trying to improve your mental wellbeing.

What is also challenging at this time is accepting that we will all be dealing with this situation differently. There are just so many variables, both internally such as culture, levels of pre-COVID mental wellbeing, stress management strategies and insight and external variables such as family commitments, financial stress, home set up and so on, that make dealing with this situation just so unique to us all. And no one way is right or wrong. And so, recognising the signs of not managing or coping for yourself and your teams is also important – and they may present differently to how you would expect them to, and how you would expect a person to act/perform/present. Looking out for changes in behavior at this time. A person may be more irritable than usual, have a change in routine, look different, be difficult to reason with, become easily overwhelmed, express concerns over their future, be eating more… or less, stopped previously enjoyed activities or not wanting to join in on team activities and so on. It does take a trained eye to see these, sometimes subtle changes, and the more you know your team as individuals, not just workers, the easier it will be.

So what can you do to keep mentally well during this time? My top 3 suggestions would be these three;

Keep connected& have fun! – personally and professionally. This has been a challenge whilst in isolation and while working from home, and it takes strength and courage to reach out regularly to people and make those connections. Connect using a variety of ways – telephone, Zoom, Facetime etc and now we are able to move around more freely – in person. We are social beings and an absolute must for good mental wellbeing is to maintain social, physical and spiritual connections with others. This will allow you the space and time to talk about how this time and the future is for you. Incorporating some fun into team meetings, conversations and activities is just what we need at the moment as well.

Keep active – there is a multitude of research highlighting the benefits of physical exercise for our mental wellbeing – getting that heart rate up for 15-20 minutes (minimum) every day makes you feel physically fit and well, and mentally alert. Encourage others on your journey, create challenges for yourself and your team, have walking meetings, walk and talk on the telephone and preferably do this outdoors, away from your screens and in the fresh air.

Get enough sleep – research shows that in winter we need a minimum 9 hours sleep (minimum 7 in summer) to keep physically and mentally well, however evidence shows that we are not getting this. When life gets disrupted like it is at the moment, it is easy to fall into bad sleeping habits. With increased screen time, reduced physical activity and disrupted schedules and routines it's easy to see why getting enough good quality sleep is challenging. Actively managing your sleep patterns and habits will pay dividends for your mental wellbeing and long term health, and creates a more productive workforce. Try maintaining a regular bedtime – avoiding lying in too long and staying up too late. Take some time to wind down in the evenings, increase your exercise / movement and avoid having caffeine or alcohol late in the afternoon and evenings. Encourage staff to think about their sleep patterns.

There are many other tips and tricks to maintaining good mental health and wellbeing and using apps and programs such as Mentemia, Just a Thought, CalmKeeper can help you keep on track. They are really good resources to share with staff to help them manage and maintain their mental wellbeing – more can be found here

Staying healthy is a habit and establishing a healthy workplace creates a healthy business, so it is worth the time, energy and effort to invest into yourself and your staff – it will pay dividends for the months and years ahead!

Randa Abbasi is a New Zealand trained Occupational Therapist and owner / operator of WorkSpace IQ. Randa has over 25 years experience in leading and managing teams in the health sector and specializes in ergonomics, wellbeing, personal and professional development and clinical supervision.

Randa can be reached at WorkSpace IQ | Home

Mobile: 021 1971 060

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