Talking to Staff during Stressful Periods

Written by Melissa Bell 
on 16 Apr, 2020

Getting Their True Perspective

Over the past few weeks we’ve all heard the expression, ‘It’s business as usual’. Some of us have probably even said it. In the early days of the pandemic, I was saying it, I even updated the homepage of the Fortitude Wellbeing website to read, in capital letters, ‘IT’S BUSINESS AS USUAL’. I said it and I wrote it with the best of intentions. I thought it was helpful. I believed and hoped that it would be the reassurance we all needed. That, if we could just push on through, everything would be just fine.

Upon reflection, I realise that’s MY survival instincts kicking in. It’s how I cope – a bit of denial, combined with a bit of fight and a lot of hope. I deal with the here and now – what’s right in front of me. I concentrate on what I can do today and attempt to distract myself when I start to peer off into the distant future. For me, this works. It’s effective and keeps me grounded. However, it’s not the only way to manage and cope with distress, and to assume this is the case would be inconsiderate.

As a psychologist, I am lucky to work and interact with a variety of people; all with different circumstances, different experiences, different perspectives and different coping mechanisms. From the many conversations I’ve had since the outbreak of COVID- 19, with friends, family and clients, I realised that my use of the expression, ‘It’s business as usual’ was flawed and if I was to effectively help others during this time then my perspective required some adjustment.

In reality, it’s not business as usual! No matter who you are, no matter how ‘great’ or ‘small’ its affect on you – there is nothing ‘usual’ about this situation. To suggest that our current state of affairs is ‘usual’ insinuates it’s normal and this is problematic. Firstly, it dismisses the legitimate emotional, social and financial concerns that are being faced by many in the community. And, just as importantly it fails to acknowledge the tremendous effort and the barriers that people are working through just so that they can complete work related tasks while in a space (their home) that was not designed for working.

So, over the past few weeks, I came to understand that the expression, ‘It’s business as usual’ actually leaves people feeling further overwhelmed and believing that the additional effort that is required of them at this time is being overlooked and at worst, dismissed.

However, we have the opportunity to correct and better support those in our workplaces. We can do this, by understanding the importance that genuine acknowledgement plays in our life. Each and every one of us has a desire to be recognised and noticed by others. When we feel that we have been acknowledged, we feel understood, we feel we exist, we feel accepted. Ultimately, this provides a sense of belonging and connection.

As human beings we are hard wired to connect and seek a place where we belong. It’s how, as a species we’ve survived. Experiencing connection to others and having a sense of belonging is accompanied by desirable emotions (e.g., pride, happiness) and pleasant feelings (e.g., physiological signs such as feeling energised and warmth) – who doesn’t want that!

The experience of such desirable emotions contributes to optimistic and flexible thinking patterns, improved capacity to problem solve, greater resilience, broad views on life and willingness to seek social support from others. All in all, creating connection with others, including your employees, especially during this stressful time, will act as a powerful motivator, while also increasing their feelings of happiness and self-worth. It’s a win, win.

Tips for connecting

  • When you interact with your employees, make an effort to really understand what it might be like for them to be working from home. Each person’s circumstances will be unique and come with their own set of challenges – for one person, having kids and trying to take a conference call can be as stressful as living alone and having no physical connection to others.
  • Check-in with people regularly – because you want to, not because you have too.
  • Ask open-ended questions about how they are going with specific tasks or activities. E.g., ‘Tell me about what you’re working on today?’
  • Acknowledge that their current working conditions and environment create unforeseen challenges. Tell them that you recognise they are doing the absolute best they can during these difficult times and that’s all you can ask for.
  • If appropriate, share your own experience of working from home and some of the challenges you are facing. E.g., ‘I had to take a work call in the car to get away from the kids. I realise now how much I appreciated 8 hours of uninterrupted office time!’ Or ‘I haven’t physically seen anyone I know for a while now. I realise how much I appreciated morning coffee walks.’
  • Ask questions that encourage challenges to be acknowledged and problem solved together. E.g., ‘What challenges do you anticipate with this task?’ Or ‘What additional challenges have you encountered so far?’ Let’s see if we can work together and come up with a solution.’ Help staff translate how a day in the office might look within the home. E.g., ‘Remember to take your breaks. In the office, we’d all have a chat here and there. Do the same at home, jump onto messenger or Zoom or SMS and take a moment to share a laugh or get some advice on what to have/cook for dinner. Or we’d go for a coffee walk – how can you make that happen from home?’
  • Communicate expectations regarding working hours and break times. If there’s not a lot to do, be honest and communicate this with your staff. Connected and motivated staff will want tasks to complete; the pressure of being seen to be busy (when you simply aren’t) is exhausting. Discuss with them the reality of the situation and what they can be doing during this period. Remember, when workplaces go back to normal, you may require more from your staff. Now may be a time to build resilience and prepare.
  • Notify all staff of their employee entitlements. E.g., sick leave and/or carer’s leave.
  • Refer workers to appropriate channels to support workplace mental health and wellbeing, such as Employee Assistance Programs, mental health organisations and private practice.
  • Melissa is a fully qualified, registered psychologist and teacher with over 15-years’ experience. She is a firm believer that a trusting environment and positive relationship are fundamental to effect change and improve health and wellbeing. To support this, Melissa places her client at the centre of their assessment and works collaboratively with them to thoroughly understand their personal narrative.

About the Author

Principal Psychologist

Melissa is a registered general psychologist and teacher with over 20-years’ experience in the field of wellbeing, mental health and education. Melissa currently works in private practice, offering short and long-term therapy for adolescents and adults. She works with a wide range of presenting issues, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, trauma, work-place stress and relationship issues.