Ten ways not-for-profit employers can help their people cope with Covid-19

By Dr Stephen Carbone, CEO, Prevention United

There has never been a more important time to focus attention on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Covid-19 is the single biggest challenge to our wellbeing since the first half of last century when we experienced two World Wars, and the Great Depression.

Dr Stephen Carbone
Dr Stephen Carbone

Right across the country, but particularly in Victoria and NSW, people have been amazingly resilient. We have practised self-care, supported each other, taken each day as it comes, and looked at the big picture of what we are trying to achieve. We have followed the rules, and in the process, we have saved tens of thousands of lives – it’s been worth it.

But it’s now clear that for many people the worry about catching coronavirus or infecting others and uncertainty about the safety of vaccines, coupled with the massive disruption to our lives and our livelihoods caused by public health measures to control the spread of the virus, have started to take a toll on their mental wellbeing.

Prolonged stress and uncertainty is bad for our mental wellbeing, and it is important to either avoid it, or mitigate its impacts. So, while we wait until enough people in the community have been vaccinated to loosen restrictions safely, here are ten tips for boards and senior leaders on how you can help your staff in the coming months.

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Every staff member will respond differently to times of stress, but it is likely that at least some of will be suffering mental ill health as a result of multiple intersecting factors right now.

Think in terms of the mental health continuum

While mental health and mental illness have become synonymous in everyday language, they are not the same. Many experts therefore prefer to use the term mental wellbeing to refer to a positive state of mind, where people feel good emotionally, and function well psychologically and socially. They then use the terms mental ill-health or mental health conditions to describe feelings of burnout and stress, or conditions like depression and anxiety that cause distress, interfere with social interactions, and impair day-to-day functioning and performance.

Every person’s level of mental wellbeing can vary from high (flourishing) to low (languishing). We can also experience varying degrees of mental ill-health ranging from mild stress to psychological distress to a severe mental health condition, depending on what’s happening in our life. It’s therefore important to think about where any individual employee may be positioned on the continuum at a given point in time, and where the staff group as a whole is positioned. In states like Victoria and NSW, almost everyone is sitting at the languishing mid-point of the continuum, but many people are at the mental ill-health end. It’s therefore important to offer mental wellbeing initiatives to everyone, and to keep an eye out for those doing it tough and link them to professional support.

Promote the basics of self-care

Numerous self-care strategies drawn from health, clinical and positive psychology have been proven to boost people’s mental wellbeing and reduce their risk of experiencing mental ill-health. These include the basics of regular physical activity, eating a high-quality diet and avoiding junk food, getting enough sleep, and simple relaxation strategies such as slow deep breathing and progressive muscle relation. They also include more powerful self-care strategies like behaviour activation, problem solving, thought reframing, and mindfulness meditation.

Staff can learn these strategies in a variety of ways including through self-help books, tips on social media and websites like Beyond Blue, and more sophisticated online learning programs or workshops run by specialists in particular wellbeing and stress management techniques. It’s important that employers encourage and enable staff to learn and practise these strategies, by promoting them through all-staff emails, newsletters, the staff intranet and the like. Staying Ahead by Prevention United is one example of a very helpful evidence-informed self-care program that companies can purchase access to on behalf of their employees.

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People are used to being with other people and need a chance to connect, says Dr Carbone.

Keep people connected as much as possible

People do better together. Public health restrictions in some states have contributed to long periods of professional isolation, as well as social isolation and loneliness more broadly. It is vital to ensure that people stay connected however they can. While Zoom fatigue is setting in, finding a way for staff to say g’day, find out how everyone is doing and have some fun is critical. Some organisations have organised a buddy system for individuals. Some have organised Zoom trivia, brief chats, or online Friday drinks to ensure that a sense of connectedness and belonging are maintained. These are critical to good mental health and wellbeing. It’s also important to provide some more private opportunities for people to vent, express their frustrations and talk about how they’re feeling. It’s a human chat, rather than a counselling session, and if people need more they should be encouraged and helped to seek professional support.

Cut people some slack

Staff productivity plummets when people are feeling mentally tired, worn out or overwhelmed. Their output is shot to pieces if they are juggling work and home-schooling. Even fairly subtle levels of low mental wellbeing or stress or subthreshold symptoms of mental ill-health can cause presenteeism and a drop in performance – not just ”clinical” levels of anxiety and depression. Employers need to cut their employees some slack right now. That doesn’t mean lowering standards or providing poor-quality services to customers or clients. But it does mean providing staff with some emotional buffer by trying to pare back work to the essentials and leaving new or complex projects on hold until public health restrictions are loosened long term. The higher the mental wellbeing of your staff group, the more creative, productive, and strong they will be as a team. There is no point trying to push people when they’re struggling : it’s better for the organisation, its customers and its clients to give people some breathing space, focus on promoting mental wellbeing, and prevent the onset of conditions like depression and anxiety.

Give people something to look forward to

Many people feel like they’re living in Groundhog Day. Prolonged restrictions have led to a level of staleness and boredom that comes from a lack of variety, stimulation and change. Everyone needs something to look forward to, especially if they haven’t had a holiday for a while. Employers need to get creative as to what they can do to provide variety or much needed down-time. Some organisations have decided to offer their workers one paid ”mental wellbeing day” to take off each fortnight or month. Others have encouraged staff to take annual leave and let them take five days but only deduct four so that staff still have some annual leave to enjoy when restrictions ease. Leaders need to look for whatever way they can to give staff something to work towards and to look forward to.

It’s also important to keep people focused on the bigger picture, rather than the frustrations of the day. Display the vaccine numbers as they climb each day, show people the data about the number of lives they’ve saved through their sacrifices, and remind people that public health restrictions will eventually ease, and that time is getting closer. People need hope right now.

Boost recognition and reward

Staff are not robots, and everyone needs a little encouragement and praise to boost their spirits, particularly when they have gone above and beyond the scope of their role. It’s therefore important to appreciate and publicly recognise staff’s willingness to be flexible, adapt to new ways of doing things, and keep working while they deal with other responsibilities in life brought on by covid. However, fairness is critical, and staff want to see a level playing field where decisions on recognition and reward are transparent and based on the principles of equity and contribution.

Appoint a covid mental wellbeing coordinator

It’s all too easy for employers to decide that promoting good mental health and wellbeing is an individual’s responsibility, and not something that employers should or can be responsible for. While employers are not responsible for the harms caused by government policies to contain coronavirus, they do have a legal responsibility to prevent psychological injury in the workplace and a moral responsibility to contribute to mental health promotion efforts that benefit the whole community.

All workplaces should already have a Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy that outlines how they will identify and manage the 11 psychosocial hazards that can lead to psychological injury at work or work-related mental health conditions. They should also have an executive sponsor and senior staff member whose job it is to ensure that the plan is followed, and progress is monitored and reported. It’s therefore simply a matter of incorporating these mental wellbeing strategies into the Strategy and making someone accountable for implementing them. Things that get counted get done. Things that get resourced get done. And things that get delegated to someone who is accountable also get done.

Advertise your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and other support options prominently

The rate of workplace psychological injury may not necessarily be affected by covid (although the move towards ”work-from-home” arrangements does need to be closely monitored for negative consequences), but the rate of stress and psychological distress in the community certainly has increased. Figures from the ABS point to a dramatic increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms across the Australian population compared to pre-covid levels. It’s therefore highly likely that several staff members will be experiencing a mental health condition as a result of multiple intersecting factors. It’s important to support them, encourage them, and assist them to access professional mental health supports through Employment Assistance Programs or mainstream mental health services. To do this, it is essential to normalise help-asking and help-seeking by tackling any stigma head-on. Organisations such as R U OK, Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute have a wealth of information to tackle stigma, encourage help-seeking, and support people who are doing it tough.

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Promoting vaccination helps tackle the cause of so much of the stress that's affecting us.

Promote vaccination

One of the best ways to deal with stress is to deal with the issue that’s triggering it. The quicker we reach our 70–80% vaccine target, the quicker we can wind back some of the stricter public health restrictions. It therefore makes a lot of sense for employers to encourage their staff to get vaccinated and facilitate access if they can afford it, by negotiating with government to deliver vaccine doses in the workplace. Failing that, permitting people to get vaccinated during work hours, and providing incentives that are within the legislative framework set out by the TGA, would allow every Australian not-for-profit and business to play its role in keeping the community both physically and mentally well.

Look after your own mental wellbeing

As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first, and then help people around you. Senior leaders are carrying a heavy load right now to keep things on track, and they need support too. Board members need to look out for executive team members who are giving everything and taking back nothing. This is unsustainable and will put them at risk of burn-out. Senior leaders may be resilient, but they are not invulnerable, and all the things that apply to staff apply to them as well.

More information

How you can flatted the curve of mental ill health during the pandemic

About Prevention United
Staying ahead

Prevention United aims to tackle the root cause of mental health problems. It focuses on activities that promote mental wellbeing and prevent mental health conditions from occurring in the first place.

Prevention United’s online Staying Ahead program is available for $15–30 per employee (ex GST) depending on the size of your NFP. Details: stayingahead@preventionunited.org.au

About Prevention United | Free self-care e-book | Past webinars and programs | Prevention United’s national “prevention consensus statement” alongside five other mental health advocates

Creating a mentally healthy workplace

Thrive at work | Heads Up | WorkWell toolkit – WorkSafe Vic | Super friend | Black Dog Institute

Personal support options

Head to Health (federal health department) | Beyond Blue | Black Dog Institute | Lifeline | This Way Up | Mood Gym | MindSpot | Open Parachute (for students, parents and teachers)

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