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Working Beyond the Pandemic

I was delighted to join Ben Cahill and Roz O’Neil as keynote speakers for this webinar, ‘Working Through the Pandemic and Beyond’, one of a series of events supporting the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce Mental Wellbeing Charter.

You can watch the event here. I take the stage from 47:00 minutes when you can hear what I had to say about:

  • Fulfilling your role as a leader to inspire trust, confidence and alignment in your wellbeing agenda
  • The big picture – where to focus to achieve a holistic approach that drives wellbeing
  • Joining the dots: Values, empowerment and psychological safety
  • Seeking out resistance to understand the real barriers to positive employee experience

Thank you to host David Saab, Chair Carole Kaplan, and Claire Lyons-Collins who moderated the questions. Time limitations meant we were only able to address questions raised during the webinar, which left those submitted prior to the event, unanswered. And so here is my take on what I would have shared from my psychologist perspective, had we had an opportunity to explore them.

My responses are a summary of a larger conversation that is always best had in person, so do feel free to contact me to explore any of these challenges that resonate for you.


  1. “What do you have to say about mindful leadership, challenging mental health stigma and supporting hard to reach groups in your organisation?”

If groups are hard to reach, it might mean that they don’t feel safe enough to engage or they don’t see the value in it. These would be the two places I’d start, actively seeking ways to include them by asking about their barriers to engaging, and looking to break those down. That will focus around relationships and trust.


  1. “I’d like an overview of the scale of the possible problem, how it may emerge and guidance on smoothing the transition and recognising that for many individuals it will take considerable time to ease back to a new normal.”

The pandemic has proved a period of turbulence for many people so leaders really need to understand the emotional cycle of change. When resistance, ‘tricky’ behaviours or a decline in mental health and wellbeing are observed, leaders should feel confident about how to support people through these periods. That requires insight about the impact of change and a level of skill and confidence to have empathetic conversations.


  1. “I have a particular interest in the impact on veterans of events in Afghanistan. From personal experience of a decorated veteran with 3 tours, but none in Afghanistan, it has been very unsettling and this may emerge in the workplace.”

PTSD is a real issue for veterans and there are a surprising number of these individuals in companies where their managers are unaware of their needs. We know, too, that healthcare staff are also experiencing the effect of trauma. People being triggered in any way, what ever that may be about, need to be supported appropriately. For example, it may be helpful for managers to know potential triggers and what the employee needs to feel ok. That requires a culture where individuals can speak up and be vulnerable, and where leaders care about and know their workforce.


  1. ” I’m interested to hear more about psychological health and safety”

I support companies a lot around psychological safety, creating work cultures where people feel included, safe to learn, contribute and challenge. When employees at all levels of an organisation know it is ok to be authentic, make mistakes, ask questions and be themselves in a personal and professional capacity, they are far more likely to thrive. This is a crucial factor to get right, particularly in the current climate. Those companies who don’t are likely to lose their staff.


  1. “Having a team experience very busy pre covid times and cope with fatigue, We are finding fatigue is a big concern during the Pandemic as business is so quiet that there is much down time with little to do. Advice about how to support each other and look for ways to adapt to combat fatigue would be helpful.”

It is helpful to understand the performance curve which shows that we need to be ‘stretched’, to have a sense of meaning, to thrive. So being under-stimulated is a problem for the brain; it creates emotional arousal that feels uncomfortable as a way to motivate us to take action. It helps to have open and honest conversations to acknowledge this challenge. Understanding the brain’s response can help people feeling worried. And getting creative about finding a different purpose is important – this means being agile with role expectations and looking outside the box. What are other activities that need to be done or could be a benefit to the workplace, employees or clients? For example, get creative types to paint murals on train station walls!


  1. “I would be interested to hear views on handling long-covid cases within the workplace given the limited NHS resources available to support these cases.”

There is some excellent occupation health advice available, specifically aimed at supporting employees and I have my go-to colleague who I put companies and individuals in touch with. I advise people to do some basic research to understand the general implications of long-covid and then have quality conversations. Most importantly, ask those experiencing long-covid how it affects them and develop a plan around their specific needs. Personalisation is key.


  1. “Many front line Leaders have worked through the Pandemic, caring and supporting for others. This has had a huge impact on their own wellbeing. How can senior leaders learn from this?”

So much pressure is put on front line leaders without adequate support from above. A staggering 71% of companies admit to not training first-time managers and so it is not surprising they may not prioritise self-care. 68% of managers also consider themselves accidental, which relies a lot on a fingers-crossed approach to having the right people supporting the emotional needs of teams. It is not surprising that front line leaders feel the strain; they are as susceptible to a sense of overwhelm as much as anyone else; we can too easily forget they’re not invincible. Senior leaders need to be investing in managers to understand how to look after their own wellbeing, to enable them to shape their role around self-care, and to have training and support to look after their teams. Everyone needs to know how to recognise the signs that things aren’t great for themselves and their peers.


  1. “What advice do you have for Line Managers about how to recognise the signs of mental health and also how best to keep in contact with direct reports if they are on sick leave due to mental health issues.”

Simply, front line managers need training on how to recognise the signs of poor mental health. They also need to know how to create a culture where vulnerability is expected and sensitive conversations are the norm. When people are on sick-leave, keeping lines of communication open is really important. You need a policy that is flexible about the method, frequency and so on, to suit the employee. Keeping individuals up to date to reassure them, asking them about their concerns and what they would find helpful is a good starting point. Ask them what they want to ask you! And remember that it may not always be the line manager who is the best person to stay in touch – the right relationship is most important. Knowledge, skills and confidence to fulfil this role comes from training and/ or coaching and it comes back to my point above for Q7, about investing in managers.


  1. “I’d be interested to know any suggestions for how we can do more to ensure the wellbeing of our team when we have limited engagement with them due to working from home, knowing that this will continue with the introduction of hybrid working.”

In addition to my comments above about manager training, I’d focus on how to check-in with each other. What does that look like so that it is meaningful? That is likely to be different for different people. Look for opportunities to share virtual time together, for example having lunch and talking about non-work, walking and talking on headphones, collaborating more on projects, creating ‘clubs’ for people with similar interests. And make sure that all employees know the signs that might suggest someone is not ok and what to do in that situation.


  1. “I know several people who are looking for any reason every morning not to come into work, additionally having palpitations over the weekend.  Is this the first sign of Mental Stress?”  

It could be. But it might not be. Each person is unique and so although we may observe similar behaviours, they could be driven by different factors, whether that’s covid, a colleague, a task or the emotional impact of uncertainty.  The only way to find out is to ask. Find the right time and to say you’ve noticed they don’t seem as keen to be in work and you’re wondering how you can help. Show that you’re on their side, that you want to listen, understand and help because you value them. Leave any judgement at the door.


  1. “It will be interesting to understand the lessons from the pandemic so far that can be applied to the gradual and partial return to in-person and full-capacity working.”

Change and uncertainty in work, and anxiety about the bigger picture around the pandemic, has taken it’s toll on mental health and wellbeing. We need to prioritise the individual emotional needs of people by understanding them at a personal level. Only then can we really reassure employees that they will not be asked to take on more than they can cope with, that they have a voice that will be heard and they can be empowered to find a way that feels ok. That requires a different leadership strategy to traditional approaches and can mean a seismic shift for some senior staff!


  1. “It will be good to hear how businesses can manage varied individual needs.”

1:1 conversations and avoiding assumptions are key. We tend to match others’ needs to our own but that means we look at the situation through our own lens and not theirs. So the importance of really understanding what things are like for individuals from their point of view, cannot be underestimated. Remember, we can all experience the same thing or have the same label but our perceptions, feelings, thoughts and responses are unique.


  1. “I’m sure there will be a period of adjustment for us all, now that we are starting to return to the office for working, and I’d like to know more so that I can help my colleagues deal with this.”

Consciously create the space to talk about the natural period of adjustment. Most companies fail to acknowledge this and expect people to return to full-speed too quickly. When we explain the impact of change and we can build an expectation of reduced focus and performance in the short term while people acclimatise, we are creating safety. Regular conversations about what the return feels like, what helps, what gets in the way, and so on, are essential. Try having check-ins where this is the only item on the agenda. Your employees will thank you!


  1. “With so much focus on caring for employees, where do the employers turn for help and support or avoid burnout?”

Each other! It’s interesting how the higher up the hierarchy, the more alone people can feel. It’s as if your brain is expected to work differently based on your seniority! But we’re all vulnerable so the rule is to never feel alone. Create a trusted network with other leaders where you can be authentic, off-load, seek advice, and use peers as a sounding board. Consider coaching too if you’re wanting to explore challenges that you don’t feel able to share with colleagues.


  1. “How do you deal with employees who are now anxious to attend work due to COVID even when the restrictions are lifted? How would you suggest this is approached?”

With empathy! Remember that every employee has a unique reality and you may have people in your team on opposite ends of the spectrum in their approach to covid. You need to understand the specific anxieties and seek to address those. Pushing people increases emotional arousal; leading them safely will help reduce their fear, build trust and improve wellbeing and engagement.


  1. “With many employers looking at different approaches to flexible working, some more agile and flexible than others,  how can we ensure that we do not return to the older world of physical presence equalling more productive?”

When we understand the benefits of work-life integration to meet individual needs and preferences on their ability to thrive, engage and perform, we understand the need for a personalised approach. The traditional approach to set hours, fixed places of work, top down targets, and authoritative processes are more apparent in companies where recruitment and retention is a bigger issue. When employees can demonstrate their ability to get their work done in their own way, this needs to be recognised, celebrated and shared so that it stays front of mind to inform ongoing good practice.

That requires a culture of trust and autonomy that comes with empowering employees. McLaren is a good example of demonstrating flexibility. Their hybrid approach invites each team to determine its future, without top-down targets, based on trust. It is non-prescriptive, providing individuals and team managers a choice as to how they organise themselves and do their work. Productivity is defined by results and not working hours.


Want to know more? Still feeling in a quandary? Have a different question? Give me a call – always happy to help.