The coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns, restrictions and temporary business closures have left many of us feeling lost and out of control of our lives.
In fact, almost half of the population has reported feeling worried or stressed since the pandemic started.
Following World Mental Health Day last month, what lessons can we learn from key discussions, to support employees navigating ongoing uncertainty in and out of the workplace?
The impact of uncertainty on emotional wellbeing
Employees, like all individuals, thrive under a general framework of routine. While we may enjoy spontaneity in daily tasks, too much uncertainty triggers our threat response, and we enter ‘fight or flight’ mode – a heightened state of stress.
This is helpful in short bursts – it keeps us alert and helps us perform under pressure – but when this stress persists, becomes chronic, it takes its toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.
Long-term physical symptoms of increased stress include impaired memory and digestive functioning, diabetes and reduced cardiovascular performance, plus mental ill-health including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive type difficulties.
Routine and structure help us limit our exposure to extreme stress.
The challenge facing many of us now, though, is that this uncertainty feels indeterminate. Many are still without a return date to the office and are navigating the challenges of long-term remote working, which can make it difficult to find and maintain structure.
With regular changing government guidance too, individuals are left facing bigger questions like ‘will we go into another lockdown?’ and ‘what impact will it have on my job?’
Challenging unhelpful thinking
In the current context of COVID-19 positive thinking is a tall order. However, among the ongoing uncertainty in the workplace and our daily lives, it is important to be able to distinguish unhelpful thinking from helpful thinking. Employees can then recognise and challenge unhelpful thoughts to cope.
This will also improve resilience. Resilience refers to our ability to learn and quickly recover from periods of stress and is a key skill in coping with uncertainty – helping us return to a state of relative ‘normality’ when we face adversity.
While we may never fully embrace uncertainty, adopting resilient habits helps us prevent instances of stress from spiralling out of control and causing long-term damage to our physical and emotional wellbeing.
This includes challenging unhelpful thoughts. Employers can support this by encouraging their team to take a short break away from their desk when they notice a sense of feeling distressed or overwhelmed and to practice coping techniques.
For example, writing down the trigger of their feelings, any associated thoughts and how these made them feel. This helps us understand unhelpful thought patterns we often fall back on and begin to break them.
Similarly, psychologists recommend present moment awareness techniques, to prevent feelings of stress becoming exacerbated.
When we begin to feel the physical symptoms of stress – like increased heart rate, faster breathing and nausea (an internal focus) – switching our focus, externally, to what we can physically hear, feel and see, helps us break the cycle of unhelpful or catastrophising thoughts.
Providing the right mental health support
Employee benefits propositions should be designed and updated to give employees access to the support and tools to cope during stressful or uncertain periods.
Providing employees with access to speak to a mental health expert helps them understand their worries and learn resilient behaviours. This can be achieved through employee assistance programmes (EAPs), offering direct, confidential access to a specialist who can suggest coping strategies like mindfulness techniques.
However, other employees may wish to work through specialist mental health support at their own pace. Offering online psychological self-help based on cognitive behaviour therapy lets individuals develop coping techniques, revisit relevant topics, and invest time into putting advice into practice. This is also helpful for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking about their difficulties.
In such uncertain times, it’s important to normalise conversations around mental health and acknowledge the feelings many employees are experiencing now more than ever.
When promoting the support on offer to staff, consider including personalised accounts from managers and team leaders about the services they’ve accessed and how it helped them. Personal stories encourage buy-in to benefits, showing employees that those in senior positions also have the same feelings of uncertainty and stress.
Employees need to know their feelings are being understood and that if they do wish to talk about their distress, those around them are equipped to provide support – or at the very least, listen and then ‘signpost’.
Offering emotional literacy training to the team equips them with the skills to facilitate conversations around mental health and a common language to discuss their feelings.
At Nuffield Health, over three-quarters of employees have successfully completed emotional literacy training via an internally developed online learning module. Following this, 94% said they’d feel confident supporting a colleague showing signs of emotional distress and 96% stated that they felt more confident about supporting themselves.