Putting on the oxygen mask: Steps to support yourself and employees in challenging times
While stress is a common occurrence for most people in normal times, our current situation is unprecedented. The consistent and ongoing challenges happening all at once — COVID-19, major storms and flooding, wildfires, economic instability, civil unrest and more — have the potential to create or exacerbate other issues and concerns, especially in regards to our mental health.
When the pandemic first began last spring, everyone rallied together to continue providing leadership and meeting the needs of clients and employees, but as the situation continues, burnout and decision fatigue are real. From education challenges to working remotely and much more, these constant stressors can take their toll on each of us. When faced with situations like this, it is important to support the well-being of employees and colleagues, but just as critical to prioritize self-care to preserve our own mental health.
Long-term impact of ongoing challenges
It is a testament to human resiliency that people are stepping out of their comfort zone and taking on more through this time, borne of both necessity and the desire to keep things moving. Yet this is not sustainable for everyone. Our emotional health is dependent on three primary, critical factors — predictability, safety or security, and trust. If we feel these are missing or out of balance, we grow increasingly distressed. This is currently evident in the clash of people with different viewpoints about a variety of issues, stemming from lack of impulse control, fear and more as a result of emotional distress.
For organizations, it is important to be aware of how these issues magnify the effects of typical day-to-day stressors on employees. Being distracted by everything going on can lead to an uptick in worksite accidents and other risks, as well as reduced productivity and focus. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that people are increasing substance use to cope during this time. Regardless of whether an employee is increasing habitual drinking, self-medicating or using opioids or other controlled substances, there are inherent risks to the employee and their colleagues if they are working under the influence or this interferes with their personal or professional lives in other ways.
Finding strategies to manage the ongoing uncertainty and onslaught of stress is critical for both individuals and the workplace.
Strategies to support employees
This past year has shown us that we may all be in the same storm, but we are in different boats. While we may be facing a common issue, we each experience these challenges differently. Consider the young family trying to balance childcare with working from home, or the employee concerned about their parent in an assisted living facility in another state during the pandemic, or the person living alone and feeling isolated right now.
In order to more effectively address the current situation and support employees, it is important to put ourselves in their shoes and consider what is happening off screen or at home. For example, performance declines may be a result of the challenges someone is experiencing at home right now and require a different approach than usual.
Consider these strategies to help employees cope during this unique time:
- Increase opportunities for flexibility where possible. Can someone shift their hours to better accommodate their kids’ school schedules? Can they work remotely from somewhere besides home to be closer to family? Perhaps you declare Fridays to be Zoom-free to give everyone a breather. These may be doable adjustments that can make a big difference for employees’ stress level and overall mental well-being.
- Recognize everyone has his or her limits. Even with flexible options in place, the stress of the current situation can be overwhelming at times. If someone is struggling, don’t be afraid of having a direct conversation. Approach them with compassion and empathy to see if you can identify and address the root cause.
- Communicate frequently to keep employees in the loop. We’re not out of the woods yet, so it is important to build on what we’ve been doing to continue to meet employees’ needs. This may include regular emails, phone calls or virtual town halls to let them know the situation and plans for the workplace.
- Cultivate a sense of community when possible. While physical distancing may still be necessary, that does not mean we have to socially distance. Perhaps employees can meet up virtually for non-work conversations or grab lunch outdoors together. It may be difficult when employees are not able to see each other in person regularly, but there are still creative ways to maintain connections with colleagues.
- Manage expectations. It is important to be realistic about what is possible right now. Goals and plans may need to be flexible to accommodate the changing situation. We may need to realize that we cannot accomplish as much as we usually do in the same time frame, and give ourselves grace. This is important to express to employees, but also important to remember about the expectations we put on ourselves.
- Guide to available resources. If your company provides access to an Employee Assistance Program, make sure employees are aware of the counseling and other services available to them to help during challenging or stressful times.
Making self-care a priority
Even for those in management roles, it is not sustainable to function at a “ten” all the time. Think about who is on your team, both personally and professionally, who can help share the load with you. Work together to provide and receive support when needed. Checking in with yourself regularly to figure out what you might need to continue to perform as best as you can is important to remaining emotionally and mentally healthy.
When things feel out of control, we may change our behaviors in an effort to find a sense of normalcy. For some people, this may include regularly putting in extra hours and never quite stepping away from work, which can take its toll. While managing expectations of others during this time is important, it is also important to apply that same kindness to ourselves.
Taking steps to more effectively cope can help us individually, but when we are in a better place mentally and emotionally, we are also enable to better support our families and colleagues. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
- Limit news intake and get information from variety of resources so bias doesn’t influence our mindset. Also be aware of how much you are consuming (news overload can increase stress and anxiety).
- Schedule time away from work. It can be too easy to stay connected when we are at home all the time.
- Lean on your team when possible, both personally and professionally. Perhaps your partner can pick up the groceries this week, or a team member at work can manage a call without you so you can focus on other things. Your time is valuable and limited, so use it wisely.
- Utilize available resources. The Employee Assistance Program is not just for employees. Many provide specific support for managers and supervisors to help address this group’s unique challenges and issues.
- Take time off. Even if you do not have anywhere to go, make sure to use your available vacation or paid time off before it expires. It is critical to give yourself days off to refresh your brain and do something unrelated to work.
- Find what helps center you and make time for it. Exercise, family time, reading, etc. This will reinvigorate you for the days ahead.
While this year has tested all of us in ways we did not anticipate, people have an innate ability to adapt and evolve resiliently. Taking these steps can help you and your team build back predictability and trust to restore your sense of security. By making time to address your own needs, you will be better prepared to support your employees and colleagues, helping to lift everyone up, even if they are in different boats.