Mental health matters during COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed so much for all of us. It's been about 6 months now since we began to comprehend the enormity of this pandemic. Still, the situation changes constantly. The end is not in sight and logically it's beginning to take a toll on the mental health of Australian business people, workers, those displaced from work as well as people in our broader community.

In addition to trying to keep businesses running financially during this very difficult time, business owners and managers have the added responsibility of caring for workers as well as customers, themselves and their loved ones. Some of us are going to be doing better at the moment than others but we're all in this together and ultimately have the same end goal in mind, to be free of COVID-19 and see our country return to some kind of normal.

Now that the dust of the initial crisis has started to settle and we're adapting and responding, it's a good time to consolidate some thinking about how we manage into the future and build our repertoire of interpersonal skills so we can provide care to those struggling under pressure.

Important signs and what to look for

It's important to be aware of some common signs that could indicate others may be experiencing difficulty. Here are some tips in what we thought might be a handy reference tool for when you're dealing with complex mental health matters in your business or workplace.

Who would have thought we would experience a pandemic in our lifetime! It's the thing of movies, not something any of us would have ever seriously contemplated. So it's totally natural that we and many people we know will feel overwhelmed at some point. And when that occurs, despite caring and being concerned, we may not quite know how to help. People are individuals all having a unique lived experience of COVID-19 and respond differently to stress. The feelings and fears raised by this situation are not normal every day worries. How do we determine if, when and how to intervene or support? Especially when we ourselves might be dealing with unprecedented pressures. It can be helpful to defer to a process of logic during stressful times to make such determinations. Remember, you don't have to be perfect in a problematic mental health situation at work but being well informed, reasonably well prepared and well-intentioned will undoubtedly be beneficial.

When you need to provide hands-on help

Though it may not work for everyone and seeking professional help is always a great option if you feel out of your depth, these steps may help you to create a healthy space for communication, notice signs of stress and have an appropriate structure in place for providing mental health support in a work setting.

1. LOOK & LISTEN What are people are saying? Whether you're a boss or a worker, we all need to look out for each other. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what signs to look in others for but consider are they;

  • Confused, irrational or unusually moody. Are they having mood swings?

  • Unable to switch off. Are they ruminating about the future?

  • Are they making mistakes at work?

  • Distracted or disengaged?

  • Lonely or seem to lack confidence?

  • Complaining about feeling unwell, tired, being in pain, headachy or nauseous?

  • Having trouble at home or juggling too many responsibilities?

  • Missing loved ones or their usual lifestyle activities as a result of COVID-19 restrictions?

  • Having financial difficulties?

2. CONSIDER the best time and place to start a conversation. Use discretion and ensure your approach is made with the best intentions.

3. EMPATHISE Try to understand their world and what is going on in their lives that may be contributing to stress and reducing resilience.

4. AVOID Judging. One person's circumstances or their ability to cope with an unprecedented situation like a pandemic is no reflection on another. You may be a "tough it out, soldier on" type whereas another might be more sensitive. Men and women often have different coping mechanisms. People of different cultures, young people vs older people too, these are not wrong, just different.

5. UNDERSTAND when you seek to understand and support rather than judge, your approach is more likely to be successful.

6. THINK Determine if your help is needed or wanted. Sometimes a friendly ear or a warm smile and a casual chat are all that is needed.

7. DETERMINE if you actually have the capacity to help. You don't have to be the one! Try not to be offended if someone prefers not to open up to you but is perhaps more comfortable speaking to someone else. These situations are not always logical or a reflection of their respect for you.

8. THE CHAT Some people are naturally good at this stuff. Some not so good but if you're a manager or boss, it is more than likely it's one of your responsibilities. Once it is clear that a staff member or colleague may need some support and you've determined that you're in a good place to provide it, at an appropriate time for them you can start a conversation.

9. BE PRESENT find a quiet place where neither of you is likely to be distracted. Turn off your phone and block out your diary. Close indoor blinds and the door to your office. Turn off your computer. Make sure to allocate adequate time to allow for natural flow of conversation and limit the temptation to rush or interrupt.

10. ENQUIRE It's ok to ask "What can I do to help?" You don't have to be a hero. Sometimes you're not the best person to provide help. For example, if you are also stressed or don't have a trusted relationship with the other person, trying to "fix" them or help them "get over it" could do more harm than good. If the person feels that their job could be under threat by disclosing personal information they WILL NEVER OPEN UP and you could lose a valuable worker, colleague or friend. Try to create a safe space.

11. LISTEN ACTIVELY This requires more than open ears. Engage in good eye contact, open body language, use a calm voice and most of all;

  • Take what they say seriously. Don't be dismissive or minimise. Their concerns may not seem important to you but they are important to them. Avoid challenging their perceptions. That's not your job.

  • If you don't quite understand, gently encourage them to explain.

  • Repeat back what you have heard to ensure it's accurate "So I think what I'm hearing is that your household finances are very stretched right now and you're concerned about job security. Have I got that right?" Only when you have accurate information can you provide an adequate and appropriate response. You don't have to give immediate solutions. Coming back to someone is ok.

12. BE PREPARED Have some resources handy such as brochures, or phone numbers for support services. If you're a manager or business owner, review staff records for insights such as increased sick leave days, requests for pay advances or workplace conflicts. If the conversation is likely to get emotional, have some tissues handy and some drinking water. Understand what leave options are available. If your workplace has an Employee Health Program, make sure you have contact information or a brochure handy.

13. ENCOURAGE action, healthy eating, downtime, exercise or spending time with pets. When people take action they need they feel more positive and more empowered. Gently offer some suggestions for positive steps people can take to care for themselves. Offer access to leave.

14. RESPECT privacy and boundaries. Above all, no matter what is shared with you or by whom, you are obliged to be professional and keep confidentialities.

15. SUPPORT or REFER If you're not the best person to help, the best thing you can do is to connect the person with someone who can. Use trusted proven resources. If you are particularly concerned for someone's well being it may be worth contacting an organisation such as Lifeline Australia for guidance (13 11 14). Be positive about the advantages of talking to professionals such as counsellors or psychologists. It's never a sign of weakness to seek help.

16. CHECK-IN follow up with a care call. Schedule a reminder to check-in. If they're really struggling, make that sooner rather than later. Stay in touch.

17. SELF CARE you're important too! When you are responsible for other people in the workplace, it can be easy to forget self-care. You are no good to anyone if you're burnt out. Focus on healthy eating, exercise or spending time in nature, in the garden, with loved ones or with furry friends. Tune Out. Turn off the TV and take a break from social media. Perhaps just check in once a day for a while. Listening to music is another great way to transport your mind to a happy place.

Where to now?

If you've read all the way through this blog, there's a pretty good chance you're a caring, responsible and considerate human being who gets that life at the moment is tough for a lot of people. That's really key to being able to help others. Try to relax. Remember where you saw this blog so you can come back to it should the need to help someone else arise. People in Australia, especially in South Australia, have shown that looking out for each other during COVID-19 the answer to finding a new, healthy way forward for us all.

Thanks for doing your bit. Stay well!

Helpful Resources

Thanks to Dr Mark Pearson from the University of Sunshine Coast Director USC Counselling and Wellbeing Clinic, whose recent presentation Mental Health Awareness & Support in the Workplace (during COVID-19) helped to inform this blog.