Terry Streather, Director and Head of Training at Oakwood Training speaks about the challenges as the world of retail returns to a ‘new normal’, explaining his top tips to help create a positive, healthy working environment. Here’s what he had to say about building the mental health resilience of the workforce:
The world has changed. In just a few short months the old way of doing things has been turned upside down and in some cases completely discarded.
As we slowly emerge from lockdown, plans are well under way to reduce the risk of the workforce getting ill, and rightly so. Since 1974 at least, it has been the responsibility for an employer to look after the health, safety and welfare of their employees.
Health and wellbeing has arguably never been so ‘front and centre’, with celebrities and royals campaigning hard to raise awareness, challenging us all to think about our personal resilience.
But on our return to ‘the real-world’, will it be the same old story: ‘safety’ being our priority and wellbeing a ‘nice to have but not essential’ afterthought?
New measures being put into effect by the risk assessment process like staggered shifts, canteen closures, plastering enormous handwashing signs and hazard tape every couple of metres may well be necessary and proportionate. But I wonder how much thought has been given to the potential psychological impact of these control measures. Employers need to be mindful that this is anything but a ‘return to normal’.
No two employees are the same. For some, contracting the illness or the loss of a loved one may have shifted their priorities. Working from home may have been bliss for some, a nightmare for others (for so many well reported reasons). Juggling the home schooling and seemingly bottomless inbox may have led some to burnout, whilst those who have been furloughed may be in danger of ‘rusting-out’.
Before diving into our top five tips, we need to understand that the human brain loves patterns, certainty and predictability. Uncertainty or unexpected events are perceived as threatening and our ‘sympathetic nervous system’ triggers our fight flight response. This hardwired survival mechanism initially bypasses our rational brain (the parts that reads top 5 lists) and can lead to more serious problems. Stressed brains make bad decisions.
Not just the right thing to do..
The history of pandemics like SARS and Ebola, warns of dramatic increases in common mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Worrying news considering that in the good old pre-covid days, stress anxiety and depression accounted for over half of all working days lost.
It’s not an employer’s job to diagnose mental health issues or fix people. But now more than ever, supporting wellbeing is essential if the people we welcome back to the shop floor, distribution centres and offices are to be engaged and motivated.
Despite our diverse backgrounds and differing experiences during this pandemic, we are all going through some form of change.
Understanding how we react in times of stress or uncertainty can be really helpful. Models used in grief counselling illustrate the different emotions we may experience. The Kubler-Ross Change Curve for example describes how our ability to cope may change over time. The stages are grouped broadly into trying to hang on to how things were (initial shock, denial, anger and blame, bargaining, confusion and even depression) and moving forward (deliberation, realising we can choose, acceptance and integration).
You may recognise some of these stages in the statements and behaviour of certain world leaders.
How can employers help?
Employers can support their people through change and help build resilience by providing timely information, giving people space to talk (or not), not expecting perfect, and sharing ideas that inspire change. Resilience is not a fixed character trait, nor is it just ‘carrying on reward less’.
Our top five tips to support mental health resilience
- Put people first
Employees want to feel valued rather than a box to be ticked in the compliance audit. Include them in changes to the work environment and measures to keep them safe. Having some control in circumstances that are completely out of control is an essential ingredient to motivation and resilience. You are more likely to get buy in, and they may come up with creative solutions.
- Take care of the threats
Physical and psychological. Real support is so much more than just passing on the number of the Employee Assistance Program. Speak to your people about how the changes are affecting them rather than assuming you know. They may well be concerned about getting sick or taking something nasty home to loved ones. Explain what you have done to reduce anxiety. If you have wellbeing champions or allies, put in additional support for them, and make sure people know how to access them.
- Be human in your communication
Put down the ‘strategic management speak thesaurus’ and talk to people. None of us are superhuman (not even senior leaders!). If you don’t know, be open about it. For most people, no news is hardly ever good news.
Not every message needs to be an official corporate update. Find and celebrate examples of how your staff from all levels are sharing their own struggles and triumphs, showing personal vulnerability to engage and inspire others.
Bringing the team together for non-work virtual events, like quizzes and themed calls are great ways to leverage technology for good!
- Provide clarity of purpose
People will remember how they are led now, and fancy slogans on mission value statements mean little without real action.
Hold wellbeing one to one meetings to re-connect, rather than asking a few questions at the end of a performance review. Understand how this may have affected people, and their intrinsic motivation. When company values are out of sync with personal values, we get problems.
- Encourage self-care
Find ways to encourage the things we should be doing, but probably aren’t. Encourage staff to switch off, connect, eat better, drink more water, exercise, practice mindfulness, take regular breaks, cut back on alcohol and coffee and my favourite: more sleep. A lack of sleep increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer’s, depression and loads of other nasties, but actually reduces anxiety by rewiring connections in the brain.
Survival of the fittest?
Many people subscribe to the view that it is the fittest that survive. In our business and personal lives, we could show grit and keep doing what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it.
But Darwin never actually said ‘survival of the fittest’. He actually found that it’s not the fittest or strongest, but ‘most adaptable to change’ that survives.
We are a resilient species and have it within us to come back as better, stronger, more creative versions of ourselves. Do you know what brings you energy in your life? What gives you your sense of balance? Doing more of those things, enables deeper recovery, sparks growth and builds greater resilience.
About the Author Terry Streather is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood Training, Mental Health and Personal Safety Specialists. Terry helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.