Mental Health During Stressful times

I’ll admit it – I’m finding the uncertainty over Covid19 and how it will impact our community to be really unnerving. I imagine that, on some level, we all are.

Events like this are a real strain on our mental well-being, with stress and anxiety rates climbing higher. To make matters more challenging, Covid19 is a quickly changing situation with a lot of variables.

While I’ve seen a lot of information about how to protect our physical well-being, I’ve seen a lot less about supporting our mental well-being, particularly in the workplace. 

Here’s a short list of things you can do in your workplace to support yourself and your colleagues, no matter what your role is in your organization. These suggestions are based on my experience with Workplace Mental Health and Psychological Safety and should be applicable to any workplace.

  • Be understanding. This is a scary situation, and we don’t know what will happen next. Things are changing quickly, and by our nature we can have strong and emotional reactions to change. If someone at your workplace is expressing fears about Covid19 and how it may impact them, their family, their work or their community, avoid blowing off their concerns or telling them not to worry. 
    • If you’re able to, ask them to talk a bit about what’s worrying them. Focus on listening to what they have to say, rather than problem-solving or trying to help them move past their feelings. Validate what they’re saying using words like “I can see why you would feel like that” or “I can see why that would be hard.” Often, people just need to feel heard. 
    • If you’re not able to have the conversation (maybe it’s overwhelming for you too – that’s perfectly normal!), or if you’re feeling like it’s outside of your comfort level, ask if they have someone they can talk to about how they’re feeling. You can suggest that they call your workplace’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to talk to someone about their fears. 
  • Recognize that we all show our stress differently. Some people look anxious and want to talk about their fears. Others want to avoid the conversation and focus on other things. Some people express anger and frustration when they’re worried. Others want to find every possible silver lining and keep talking about how it’s not a big deal. All of these are normal stress responses. Try to meet people where they are. Ask if they want to talk about it, and respect their answer. Ask what they need to feel supported. They might not have an answer right away, but you’ve opened an important door. And be sure to communicate as openly as you can about the plans and processes that your organization is putting in place. 
  • Make a plan. Often, the unknown is scarier than the known. If you are in Management, and your workplace has an emergency plan, communicate it with all employees. Let them know that questions are welcome, and Management is available to address any questions or concerns. If you’re not in Management, ask your manager to communicate the plan. Share this post with them.
    • Make sure your plan considers what will happen when employees need to self-isolate due to a Covid19 exposure. Will they be able to work from home? Will sick days be available? Can they use vacation time? Be as flexible as you can be, and remember that self-isolation lasts two weeks and that if your team member develops symptoms, they will need to stay home for much longer. 
    • What’s your plan to cover absences? As a workplace leader, how will you triage workload if members of your team are unable to work due to illness?
    • Consider a business continuation plan, and what you will do if you’re required to suspend operations for a period of time. 
    • Use the available resources to make your plan. The Alberta Health website has some good information for employees and business owners at https://www.alberta.ca/coronavirus-info-for-albertans.aspx, under the “Info for Albertans” section. 
  • Communicate the plan. Now is not the time for unknowns and secrecy. Sometimes, we think that communicating the plan will cause people to panic when, in reality, it’s not knowing that creates more fear and uncertainty. And let’s be real, people are already worried. Lack of communication only serves to amplify those worries. Allow time and space for questions – not just immediately but in the coming days and weeks. Let your team know that things may change,  that you will be paying attention to the recommendations from Health Canada and Alberta Health, and will be adjusting the plan as needed. Be sure to communicate any changes to the plan as soon as possible. Err on the side of over-communicating, not under-communicating. 
  • Know what mental health supports are available through your organization. Check with HR if you’re not sure. What’s covered in your benefits plan? Does your company have an Employee Assistance Plan (sometimes called EAP or EFAP)? Make sure everyone has that phone number, and that they know it’s free and confidential. Let them know what hours it’s available. Share the number for the Distress Centre – 403.266.HELP (4357) – which is available 24 hours to all Calgarians (phone number outside of Calgary may vary). 
  • Know what your organization is doing to protect employee’s physical well-being and safety. Make sure that high-touch points (door handles, fridges, microwaves, tables in common areas, light switches, phones and computer keyboards) are being cleaned daily. Post hand-washing information at every sink. Alberta Health Services has a printable one here –it’s intended for hospital settings, but works for all of us. https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/healthinfo/ipc/if-hp-ipc-flu-handwash-how-to.pdf

Ultimately, we don’t yet know what the Covid19 outbreak will look like in Alberta. All levels of government are fine-tuning plans and keeping an eye on the situation. 

Emergency Management Agencies have been preparing for a pandemic like this for many years and are also closely monitoring the situation here and around the world.

In the meantime, we have responsibilities to each other, to do what we can to minimize the spread by washing our hands and staying home when we’re sick. As leaders in our workplaces, we can support the physical and mental well-being of our teams during this period of uncertainty with open and honest communication. 

Brandy Payne works with organizations that want to improve Workplace Mental Health to increase productivity and employee engagement, so that they can experience greater success. She is a Canadian Mental Health Association Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor. She is also the former Associate Minister of Health and Minister responsible for Mental Health & Addictions in the Province of Alberta.

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