Hello and welcome to the fourth in this series of blog posts taken from my HR Insights podcast.
In this post, we're going to consider the psychological impact that Covid 19 has had on us all and how best to deal with this. When staff begin to return to work. We will be thinking about how to address concerns regarding their physical and or mental health. What the legal obligations are for employers. And how we can help staff and managers in practical ways. I'll be joined by a mindfulness expert bringing his thoughts on future well-being and, well-becoming.
Firstly, how employers treat people now will be remembered for a long time and may in the future be the difference between successful, productive, engaged and motivated staff and the opposite. We already know how reputations have been damaged by, for example, fraudulent claims of the furlough scheme by some companies and others making staff work during their furlough leave. Clearly, there are moral as well as legal considerations to think about. From previous quarantine situations, evidence would suggest that there may well be long lasting effects on mental health.
We know that there is a level of fear and anxiety about returning to work. Around four in 10 people are anxious about returning to the workplace, which is not surprising given the different experiences staff will have had over the past three months. Some may have experienced bereavement. Some may have experienced financial hardship. Some are experiencing the challenges of working from home whilst home schooling and juggling work and children. Some of those who have been placed on furlough leave may feel a lack of worth and feel de-skilled.
Some may not have left the house for months due to social isolation and shielding. We know that instances of domestic violence and child abuse has increased too. And we have all experience social isolation. The resilience of all of us has been challenged by this. Employers who approach discussions with staff with this in mind will be more attuned to having those conversations and will have more success in integrating everyone back to work, wherever that may be.
Firstly, then, what are employer' legal obligations? Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their staff. And this includes mental health and wellbeing. Also under health and safety legislation, employers have a duty to assess the risk of stress related poor mental health arising from work activities and take measures to control that risk.
Secondly, Under the Equality Act, if an employee has a physical or mental health condition, which is a disability, they will be protected from discrimination during employment. If employers try a one size fits all approach when staff are coming back to work, there's likely to be indirect sex discrimination or even race or disability discrimination. So don't try and implement too quickly or fail to take individual circumstances into account.
It would appear that the Corona virus, Covid 19, disproportionately affects certain groups. For example, older people, men, people who are overweight, those with underlying health conditions, and people from black and minority ethnic communities. Others who are at greater risk are pregnant staff. So you need to consider all these at risk groups as well as any other staff with pre-existing health conditions who may still be shielding. Also, under the Equality Act, employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to make sure that workers with disabilities or health conditions aren't substantially disadvantaged when doing their jobs.
What is reasonable will depend on the circumstances, and the employee's medical condition. That may also now apply to those who are shielding. Such adjustments might include adjusting someone's working hours, such as a phased return to work, changing the place of work, for example, homeworking, changing the duties carried out or providing specialist equipment. So phased returns would be helpful for staff in this situation and helpful for business, too. It will enable you to test your back to work plans.
In terms of disabilities, mental illness is the largest single cause of disability in the UK, so it is important that we prepare for discussions, being mentally health aware. We can anticipate that there will be an increase in those who are experiencing mental ill health, which might include a loss of purpose, anxiety, low mood and reduced motivation. We want staff to feel safe to raise any concerns they may have regarding their mental health.
Of course, we don't know who is going to present with the mental health condition, although there are risk factors which might indicate that someone's mental health will have been affected, perhaps because of their medical history or perhaps because of other pre-existing medical conditions. Other reasons might just be that someone's resilience has been impacted to an extent that they are anxious or feeling stressed. Early research into the health impacts of lockdown include findings of fatigue, musculoskeletal conditions, poor work-life balance, reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption, all of which could lead to an increase in anxiety. More serious cases could include depression. Be aware also that mental ill health can be triggered by workplace environments and any whiff of inappropriate behaviours such as intimidating behaviour, bullying, ignoring, ostracising, etc. must be nipped in the bud. Employers must stamp out any harassment on any grounds.
The law only sets the minimum standard, and instead I would recommend that employers consider a range of measures to help staff in returning to work. Supporting staff to regain an effective work life balance and addressing fears about returning to work would be a good place to start. Employers could offer work, life balance, support for everyone in the form of one to one coaching, guidance or training. All staff should receive a one to one meeting on or before their return to work to address any fears they might have and to discuss how best to facilitate their return to work.
You'll remember we covered this in episode two of this podcast series. For some, a phased return to work is going to be a helpful means of balancing the needs of work and family life, particularly while the schools are only back on a part time basis. So try and be as flexible as possible. Keep working on making the culture of your organisation as positive as possible about mental health in order to reassure staff that they can talk openly about how they are feeling. Increase mental health issues, awareness through training, acknowledging that prevention is better than cure, and also be aware of decision making processes being approached with a mental health perspective.
In my dealings with lots of different organisations during the lockdown, I feel there is a much more open approach to talking about how we're feeling. Perhaps that's been helped with the virtual meetings we've been attending. While we've also had a snapshot of people's home lives with dogs, cats, children, partners, all sorts of other things also being on the call too. Communicate regularly and include information on health and wellbeing and the support that you are offering. Be proactive in order to reduce stress.
You could suggest activities to encourage physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing. If your organisation has an employee assistance program, then make sure you remind staff how they can access help in your regular communication with them. Encourage staff to practice self care, such as developing healthy routines for diet, sleep and relaxation, connecting with others supports good mental health and this should be encouraged too. A good example of where this worked well was when NHS England had to respond to the situation they faced when certain groups of staff were being disproportionately affected by Covid 19, very early on in the outbreak. There were a number of initiatives they used in order to reach out and offer very particular help. They partnered with Headspace, Unmind and Big Heal to help with mental health and engage with faith groups and black and minority ethnic networks to tailor health and wellbeing support. I've included a link here to a large number of apps that can help with physical and mental health, which you might like to use.
And finally, we must remember, too, that all these issues affect managers and business owners and leaders. Recent figures released by the CIPD, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Simply Health, showed that only 31% of managers are considered to be sufficiently competent to initiate discussions around mental health and help staff gain expert sources of help. This isn't a specifically corona virus related figure, but it does indicate that there is a high proportion of managers who probably need some training in the area of having confident discussions with staff about their mental health. We therefore must equip managers to be able to see the signs not only for the immediate return to the workplace, but also as part of their ongoing management responsibilities.
With people working from home or interviews and meetings being held over virtual platforms, it can be harder to see the first signs of colleagues struggling. It's even harder for managers to pick up on cues. So you have to look for other warning signs, which might include things like working long hours, not taking breaks, mood changes, distraction or indecision, irritability or anger, uncharacteristic performance issues or an overreaction to something. Any of these signs should be a prompt for managers to take action, it doesn't necessarily mean that the person has poor mental health. But early intervention is key to provide support and to prevent the situation from escalating.
Here are some practical tips you can do to support and guide managers so they feel able to have supportive and open discussions with staff. Firstly, provide managers with training to help identify the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and brief them on the potential mental health implications of Covid 19 and their roles in relation to supporting staff. Secondly, a good starting point in dealing with any mental health concerns is to have a conversation, ideally face to face as soon as possible.
Your managers need to be comfortable about having these conversations. And this should include the importance of emphasising arranging a suitable time to have the conversation. Planning what to discuss, it might be a simple case of just asking the person how they are. Showing empathy and compassion. Reassuring staff that it will be confidential. Opening up the discussion and discussing a plan for support and then ensuring that support happens. Agreeing to keep the situation under review and arranging another time to check in to see how the person is.
The CIPD and Mind launched a guide for managers to improve support for those experiencing stress and mental health issues at work, and I have provided a link on my Web site.
Interview with Paul Mudd, of The Mudd Partnership, a Mindfulness Expert
Today, we're joined by Paul Mudd, co-founder and director of the Mudd Partnership and mindfulness expert who is here to share some top tips about future well-being. Welcome, Paul.
Thank you, Caroline. I am very pleased to be here in the virtual reality that we're all sort of working in at the moment, whether it's Zoom and other things online. So let me begin. And the first thing I'd like to say is that whilst we're all in the same storm, we're not all in the same boat. And the second thing, this isn't unprecedented. So let's park that word. Pandemics are, in fact, the rule, not the exception. In fact, between the Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919, which killed over 3% of the world's population and the current corona virus pandemic, there has been at least five global pandemic events in just one hundred years, whilst historically following all the uncertainty and upheaval of a pandemic, things afterwards are never the same, and this time it will be no different. What is certain, however, is the global sweep and local impact of Covid 19, has thrown everything in the air and we're all in it for the long haul.
Absolutely. So, Paul, can you offer us some insight as to how to help us with this long haul?
Yes, Caroline. Let's start, though, by focusing on another word instead of unprecedented and that word is Krisis spelt in the original Greek with a K rather than a C, and its literal translation is a vitally important or decisive state of things or rather events and a point at which change must come. Now, just pause for a moment. What words jump out at you here? Important, decisive, change. Well, let me introduce another: opportunity.
And as President Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel famously said 'You never let a serious crisis go to waste'. It's an opportunity to do things you thought you never could. And coming back to my first point at the start of this podcast, we are not all in the same boat because we will all be at different stages on our journey to make meaning and sense of what is happening and going through various stages. Such as surprise, disbelief, frustration and depression to behaviors that include reengaging and letting go. Learning to work in a new situation. Acceptance and growth.
As this crisis goes on and it will, as it's what we would call a long tail event, you may feel at times you are going backwards or getting stuck. But that's okay. And it's normal too, because at a time like this, there are three phases we will all go through to a greater or lesser degree.
First, there's the emergency phase characterised by a visceral response. A rise in our energy levels as our fight or flight response is activated. And we might not be exactly sure what to do. But we are spurred on to do something.
Then comes the regression phase. When people start to run out of steam, get tired. Start asking how long is this going to last? We lose focus our sense of purpose and we can become overwhelmed by the smallest of things. And it's all too easy to become a tad tetchy and snap at ourselves and at others, especially those close to us.
Does that sound familiar? It should, because that is where a great deal of the world's population has found itself in the past two weeks. However buoyant and naturally resilient they may usually be. But the good news is this is then followed by the recovery phase in which you can create a new day one, start to do things differently and begin to build back better.
I think those phase is actually going to be really helpful, particularly when we start to think about people coming back to work. But what can you suggest that will help people actually feel better about all this?
Well, first, let's start with a question. It's an important question and one that if we haven't asked ourselves already, we should do so right now. And that question is, after all that has happened and all that is still to happen. How am I supposed to feel? And I say it's important because the questions we ask of ourselves and the events we experience, the language we choose now and use in the stories we narrate to ourselves and tell to others are really important, and will help in the process of accepting. Feeling better about things, being able to move forward and feeling more in control. Regardless of background and nationality, we are human. My health and well-being is your health and well-being. And to be human is also to be a storyteller and a map maker because of our need for permanence, because of our need for connection, because we are colleagues, friends and lovers, because we have families and lives to live.
And that is why the isolation that many have experienced and feelings around that in this pandemic have had such a deep impact. But our liberties depend on our well-being. So, yes, what positive steps can we take to help us become unstuck if we have become stuck? To move forward with a reinvigorated resolve? To create that new day one and to build our resilience and find a renewed purpose?
Can you tell us a bit more about that Paul?
Yes, of course. But before I do, let me say that this is not just about our well-being. It is also about our well becoming. And that's something that I'm finding myself talking more and more about at the moment, because this is an opportunity for everybody and everything to reset, recharge and build back better. Be that on a personal and professional level or on a macro level as a more commutarian, just, and economically balanced society.
OK, let's get down to brass tacks. It is said that if you have more than three objectives, you may have too many. Well, I think there are three key objectives with actions you can take that will really help in all of this. And these are:
To break, to create and to transform.
So let's unpack this firstly to break see this as an opportunity to what I would say and call dump your idols, and that is to break from your usual ways of thinking, and some of those beliefs, those idols you hang on to, that may be way past their sell by date, outmoded, unhelpful and no longer fit for purpose. And you can then start to be more present and respond and behave differently because beliefs drive behaviours and thinking and behaving differently can change the outcomes. There is a saying, however, that goes 'The difficulty lies not in the new, but in escaping the old'. So be mindful of this and give yourself permission to let go of your ego and attachment to the way things are and have been.
Then second, to create by looking back to move forward. See, this is a time to take stop. Capitalise on this opportunity to do some root and branch thinking about where you are and have been and where you now want to get to. Be courageous with the questions you ask yourself, for example, leaning in introspective questions, where am I currently? Where do I want to be? What do I need to stop? Start? Continue? And with some leaning out questions, asking yourself, what have I already achieved that I wouldn't have thought possible? What am I learning about myself? And also try some future proofing questions, things like what do I now want my story to be? What qualities will be important going forward? What challenges will I face? And what opportunities will there be? And who can help? Be kind and compassionate to yourself, knowing that it is OK to feel as you currently do. Accepting what is outside your control whilst doubling down on those changed beliefs and behaviours, which will be the building blocks that help you create the new day one of your new story.
And then we come to the third key objective. To transform. Your call to action to make it so. Monotony collapses time. Novelty unfolds it. But purpose makes it liveable. Rest in reason, move with passion. Find your exceptional excellence and live your purpose. Remembering that happiness is found in the small things, the everyday stuff. And 40% of our happiness is determined by our thoughts, actions and attitudes. Which is also why it is so important that your first step is to make that break. Because as Einstein purportedly said, 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results'. In fact, he didn't say that. This is a classic example of a mis-attributed quote, and it's all part of what is known as the Mathew's effect. But perhaps, Caroline, that is an avenue to explore in another podcast.
However, the stoic philosopher, and one time Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, did say 'Sanity means tying your well-being to your own actions'. Hear that, listen to the song beneath the words, your own actions. Again, that is so important. And just like we have a physical immune system, there is evidence that we have a psychological immune system too. When you think about it, why not? After all, we have three brains, a head, heart and stomach brain, all connected by a central nervous system through the vagus nerve, as it's called. And when things get bad, we rationalise, we figure it out. We are actually a lot more resilient than we think we can be. And you must use this time now to act and learn better habits and transform to become the change you want to see and be. Remember, as a wise old bear once said, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.
Thanks, Paul. Is there a final tip that you would like the listeners to take away as something to really consider, mull over and maybe an activity that they could do to actually try and work their way through any issues that they might be facing in terms of returning to work? Or even if people have been at work all of this time, they might still be struggling.
Yeah, but I'm glad you asked, actually, because there is absolutely. Never forget that gratitude precedes happiness. And both are so important for our well-being, too. So if you take nothing else from this podcast, hold this last thought close and act on it. Start a gratitude journal now and write down three to five things for which you are grateful for every day. And believe me, you will soon notice a difference in how you think, feel and act.
Thanks Paul, I think there are some really great tips in there and I, for one, really do need to start a gratitude journal. Thank you for joining us. How can people get in touch with you? Because I know that some you do have quite a lot of resources on mindfulness. How are the best to get in touch with you?
Through our Web site, which is www.themuddpartnership.co.uk. We do have a dedicated ‘Coronavirus What Next’ resources page, that you can click on to from the home page. And there's over 40+ now downloadable PDF hand outs, links to articles that we've written that are on a range of platforms, e books and a series of videos as well. All with the intent and purpose to help people at this time move through and beyond the current pandemic and to to build back better.
That's super. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you. Thank you very much.