Life in lockdown: How to support employee mental health

Lockdowns are a reminder that the pandemic is far from over

Life in lockdown: How to support employee mental health

Sydney’s latest COVID-19 outbreak has been a reminder that until the vast majority of the population are vaccinated, a lockdown is not off the cards. The ultra-infectious nature of the Delta strain means governments and health authorities will not hesitate in reverting suburbs or whole cities back to the highest level of restrictions, taking away the normality we’ve become accustomed to almost overnight.

For HR leaders in Australia and New Zealand, it’s an important lesson in being able to scale up wellbeing initiatives when they’re needed most. Whether employees are juggling childcare responsibilities with working from home or on the opposite end of the spectrum, isolating alone, lockdown is a significant strain on our mental health.

Speaking to HRD, Sharon Ponniah, Director of Health & Wellbeing at PwC, shared her tips for how organisations can better support their staff through a lockdown.

Connection is key

One of the reasons being stuck inside our homes is so challenging is the lack of social connection, Ponniah said.

“Human brains reflect similar neural pathways when they're deprived of food and water as they do when they're deprived of human contact, which just reinforces that we’re social beings,” she said. “It’s really important we’re still getting that connection, and in isolation, it’s even more important for employees to be talking to their family, their loved ones and connecting with their work team.”

Read more: Okta CEO asks employees to share holiday plans

Starting the day with a virtual team check in, whether through video platforms or instant messaging chats, is a simple way to schedule in a daily dose of social interaction. But try to avoid those moments becoming another task-based meeting. Steer clear of work chat and take time to ask employees how they’re doing.

Authenticity from the top down

Like anything to do with wellbeing, approaching it with authenticity and honesty goes a long way. In communicating with employees, people leaders should try to acknowledge that individual circumstances will vary wildly and that whether employees are loving the quiet of lockdown, or going stir-crazy with boredom, they’re there to help. Different groups of employees will have different challenges and often the first step is creating a safe environment for them to ask for help.

“Don’t look at the situation through rose tinted glasses or try to paint over it and make everything feel glossy,” Ponniah said. “Instead say that it's hard, acknowledge that sincerely, but also talk about why it's hard and what employers can do to help.”

Read more: Men still face stigma around getting help for mental health at work: Study

Encourage time out

While employees are working from home full time, it’s even more critical to reinforce the benefits of taking breaks. Encourage leaders to schedule meetings to end before the hour, to give employees some time away from the screen before their next commitment. Also keep an eye on employees communicating out of hours. Unless working flexibly, they may be struggling to switch off at the end of the day.

Organising lunchtime yoga or encouraging employees to share pictures from whatever they’re doing over their lunch break is another way to normalise the habit of taking time away from the computer. Again, leaders play an important role in setting these behaviours from the top down.

Ponniah said at PwC, they’ve utilised technology to communicate important wellbeing messages. When employees switch off their computers, they’re presented with wellbeing reminders and tips to help them switch off from work mode. Small reminders are a great way to nudge employees into habits that will help them get some headspace while working from home, like taking a digital commute with a walk around the block or prioritising their sleep.

These types of strategies are useful in our regular lives but particularly during a lockdown, the little things can make the biggest difference.

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