How to support your employees’ mental health during the ‘Fall reset’
More than 6 months (and counting) into the thick of the pandemic employers and leaders are facing a new challenge: the Fall reset. Here’s what you can do to support your people.
As Brené Brown explains: “We’re neuro-biologically wired for something to happen in September… it’s our new year. Work ebbs and flows in the summer. We have this really deep excitement and anxiety reduction when we get back to [routine].
“But that’s not going to happen this year. Even if we spent the spring adjusting and the summer thinking it sucks and we’re anxious, we can do it.
“When the normal rhythms of work and school and life don’t click into place in September, it’s going to be a struggle.”
Throughout our lives, Fall has heralded the start of an unofficial refresh. The summer is coming to a close, and the “on and off” summer months come to an end. It’s time to get going again.
We’re back from our summer vacations (or staycations this year), kids start or go back to school, Q4 and Q1 2021 plans are discussed, employees and businesses set their objectives for the rest of the year, and client/customer relationships start to ramp up again.
Industries will start working towards their next milestone. For many, September begins the build-up to the holiday season normally.
Except this year is different. For the majority there has been no break, there will be no natural reset. 6 months after the initial lockdown, people are wondering, “how much longer can I hang on?”
A time of transition
“September can be a time of peak anxiety,” says psychologist Dr. Grin Lord, PsyD, ABPP, Clinical Product Psychologist at Youper. “It’s a time of transition for many.”
We spoke to Dr. Lord back in April at the start of the lockdown and the beginning of the pandemic. How does she think things have changed (or not) for employees 6 months on?
“I think we'd be doing better if expectations were set differently,” says Lord.
She says as soon as it became clear to the government and businesses that this wasn’t going to be a short-term blip there should have been a shift. “One of the biggest problems people are facing is uncertainty. When we spoke last, we talked about preparing for accepting uncertainty, and unfortunately that didn’t happen everywhere – certainly not on a national level here in the US.”
“Instead there was a kind of sense of optimism that [the virus] will run its course. That we’ll have a vaccine and X, Y, or Z will change. I think because the expectation was set that this was not serious or might resolve quickly, the longer this has gone on for, the harder it's been for people to transition.”
Lord says that the optimism is starting to fade for many people. “I think there’s more an attitude of acceptance now – of understanding that we can't predict the future.”
One of the biggest challenges for those who’ve been working full time at home will be going back into the office or worksite. And getting children back into the classroom too. “Expectation setting is so important,” says Lord.
She says in many ways having your hopes raised and then dashed can be more disruptive. For example, college students going back to their campuses thinking their routines are going back to normal and then being told they’re being confined to their dorm rooms.
“Organizations that haven’t been flexible and that have tried to persevere no matter what are going to face more problems psychologically with their employees than those that have been truly more agile and adaptive.”
Not knowing whether you’re going to be called back into the office or worksite and when can be deeply distressing for many. “The organizations that have set clear expectations from the start will be in a better position right now,” she says. “Those that have set in for the long haul and made consistency a priority will find their people faring better than those who’ve asked them to make quick adjustments.”
As winter draws in...
For those in the northern hemisphere, winter is starting to draw in and the prospect of another looming lockdown creates anxiety. Particularly when you take into account seasonal disorders such as SAD (seasonal affective disorder). The idea of being confined to our homes is a double whammy.
“A mindset of acceptance and collaboration is important,” says Lord. “I think the more that you can prepare for the pandemic to be here to stay, for it to be our reality, the more supportive employers can be.”
As always, Lord recommends that anyone struggling should seek therapy. “There’s no quick fix to what is going on now. There certainly wasn't before, but now we're over six months in, and the trauma is no longer acute.”
“If you are struggling, you have every reason to seek support at this moment.”
The difference between acute and chronic stress
Lord says that given the longevity of the pandemic, we should start to respond as if we are experiencing a repeated or chronic stressor rather than acute or short-term stressor.
- Acute stress lasts for three days to a month after a traumatic event
- Chronic stress occurs when there is a repeated experiences of a threat to safety, like living in a war zone, or with an abusive partner
Lord says that at the start of the pandemic, she recommended regularly asking how people are doing, but now it’s important to also respect an employee’s headspace. It may not be possible or healthy to repeatedly analyze the experience of the pandemic during the work day.
“In these situations, it's actually not as helpful to continually process what's happening as it’s happening,” she says. “Think of the metaphor of being in battle and trying to go to fight every day – you don't want to come back and discuss what just occurred because you have to go do it the next day.”
Instead, managers should respect how willing employees are to talk and refer them to resources, such as their employee assistant program (EAP) or therapy. Ideally, employees would be given mandatory time off in order to decompress properly.
“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d ask employers to give some sort of forced incremental time off because the concept of vacations right now is not happening, but people are still in danger of burning out.”
Lord also says that people are going to be more hesitant to use their PTO because they’re in a survival mode. “They're not going to be as in tune with their needs for self-care and time off.
“Employers are going to have to be more proactive about giving people things they need, but without them asking for it,” she says.
“They should spend less time processing in person and more time creating an environment that allows that person to process in the ways they need.”
What can people do to feel better?
Many people feel as if the things they love doing most have been taken away from them, such as socializing or sports. “If there’s something that you wish you could be doing and can’t, find something as similar to that thing that you're missing as possible,” says Lord.
“So if you used to go out with friends a lot, think of ways that you can do something similar online,” she says. “Or if it’s a sport, read about that sport, figure out how to practice it in small ways in your home. Anything that you can do, that's similar to the things that were taken away from you or that you are no longer able to pursue.”
What can managers do to support their people?
That hasn’t changed, says Lord. “One-on-one time is still very important. But don’t make assumptions about how people are coping based on their performance in the office, or based on what they're doing.”
The problem may be that a lot of people are nervous about losing their jobs right now. “Your people may not be letting you know the level of difficulty they're facing psychologically or at home, because they're worried about their job being at risk. So even if someone tells you that they're okay, they're probably not on some level. Make sure they know they can come to you if they’re struggling.”
What should managers do if they see someone in danger of burnout or becoming disengaged?
It’s important to speak to that person one-on-one, says Lord. “I think they'll feel understood or seen if their manager says something like: ‘Hey, this isn't a criticism of you, I'm trying to support you. And I've noticed that maybe you're not as engaged as you once were. You don't seem as excited about the work or keen on problem solving.”
Reigniting their passion may also help, says Lord. Trying things such as job secondment or on a more micro-level of giving people a small project that they would find meaningful.
How can you keep a remote workforce retained and engaged?
One thing that may need to be looked at are benefits, says Lord. Many people may have joined a company for certain benefits and these may need to be revisited.
Things like travel, a social environment, free lunch, access to a gym etc. Many of the things that drew people to the position are no longer there. Or people may value different things now.
“Employers need to get creative about how they can get the best out of a remote workforce. Benefits are not going to look the same,” she says. “I know that some employers have offered food delivery vouchers, but that's not a replacement for eating together as a community.”
There’s also the issue of people no longer working together face-to-face to problem solve or brainstorm. “There’s a special kind of innovation that happens when people are in a room, just talking about things.”
These are issues that are not easily solved.
Lord says that employers will have to start addressing these issues and planning for how they’re going to retain their workforce in the long-term.
“What will it look like? How will we keep people consistently engaged and motivated? How will you support them long-term and their needs such as childcare? Because this isn’t going away anytime soon.”
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