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by Associate Professor Erin Smith, Edith Cowan University

As we enter our sixth month of managing and mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear from disaster management expert Erin Smith on how energy businesses can support their staff during the second wave of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting workplaces with unprecedented challenges. Depending on the organisation, staff may now be working remotely, operating under staggered rosters, or undertaking modified roles.

Anxiety and worry about health is exacerbated by economic concerns related to financial stability and employment status.

Not surprisingly, these combined stressors can negatively impact staff wellbeing. There are, however, a number of things that organisations can do to proactively support staff during these challenging times.

Here, we’ll take a look at some of the key steps energy businesses can take to support their staff right now.

Put health and wellbeing first

Everyone deals with stress differently, so organisations should empower staff to make decisions around their own health and wellbeing that best suit them, whether that be work from home options or flexible schedules outside of normal hours.

Organisations should also promote the importance of self-care, and embed psychological first aid options as routinely as physical first aid.

Practice compassionate leadership

Now – more than ever – it’s important for staff to feel like we are all in this together. Despite each individual employee having their own unique circumstances, as a workforce the organisation needs to come together as a collective.

A sense of unity and belonging will be important for wellbeing at this time. It is integral for leaders to demonstrate compassion and empathy – good leaders will be honest about how they are feeling.

Ways to practice compassionate leadership

Look: Take time to check in with your team. Find out who within the team is vulnerable. Who has been tested? Who is isolating at home?

Is anyone positive? How can you support these staff? Look for the unsaid. Have moods changed? Behaviours? How are people’s energy levels?

Listen: Embed time into the work week for discussing how people are travelling. It could be a weekly COVID Catch Up. Give everyone a chance to chat about how they are feeling.

This could be online or face-to-face. Practice mindful listening. Give your staff space to be open and honest about how they feel, both mentally and physically. Ask them: how can we do better?

Link: Everyone is going to be feeling a range of different emotions. Taking the time to acknowledge how someone else is feeling empowers us to respond with kindness.

Consider getting a range of different speakers, mental health or alternative health professionals to speak to your staff or run wellbeing sessions.

Research shows that mindfulness meditation and yoga can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, and can have a significant impact in the workplace.

The cost of these activities can be offset by the reduction in absenteeism that will come from staff feeling connected and cared for.

Be open and honest

During times of uncertainty, providing accurate and honest information is an important ingredient for protecting mental health and wellbeing.

It’s important that staff receive frequent, clear, and reliable information. Make sure that as new facts emerge from trusted public health sources, information is clearly and immediately provided to staff in language they understand.

Connection is key – but avoid “death by Zoom”

Connection is an important part of wellbeing. But staying connected has been challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic for many people, particularly for staff suddenly finding themselves working from home. And especially for staff living alone.

Regular team catch ups are an excellent starting point for maintaining a sense of connection and for helping build rapport.

They also provide an opportunity for leaders to develop a better understanding of how staff are travelling. When these catch-ups are held regularly, they allow leaders to pick up on little changes among staff that may indicate that someone’s having a particularly hard time.

But it’s a fine line! Some workplaces have gone from having no regular team meetings to staff suddenly finding their calendars are filled with a glut of online meetings.

Beware of “death by Zoom”, as staff may become fatigued by the constant stream of well meaning online catch-ups and meetings.

Reach in

When it comes to supporting wellbeing, it is not enough for organisations to simply say reach out if you’re not OK. Gone are the days of purely reactive approaches to supporting mental health.

When people are in crisis they are less likely to ask for help. Organisations need to proactively “reach in” to staff to see how they are travelling.

Ideally, these wellness check ins should occur regularly – at least every six months during non-crisis times, and more frequently during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic– so that conversations around mental health become normalised and embedded within the workplace culture.

During COVID-19, organisations should be providing staff with regular opportunities to check in – whether that is with appropriately trained leaders, managers, consultants or colleagues– who encourage safe conversations and peer support.

Other reach in techniques include ensuring that staff know where to find up-to-date and appropriate information; guidance and support for protecting their wellbeing and mental health; maintaining open channels of communication to hear how staff are feeling; and, importantly, listening and responding.

Organisations could consider establishing a hotline or central contact point for staff – and developing in-house channels and hubs to respond promptly to staff questions and concerns.

Future-proof your workforce

In addition to the range of supports outlined above, the pandemic is also an opportunity for organisations to look for some silver linings.

Look for the opportunities to empower staff and encourage them to take ownership and accountability for their own wellbeing– so they can come through the crisis potentially more resilient and with greater mental health literacy than before COVID-19.

This will help future-proof your organisation for emerging crises when you have a workforce who are more aware of the importance of self-care, who are more connected, and more resilient.

Keep an eye on your own mental health

And finally – it’s important for leaders and managers to not forget about their own wellbeing. It’s easy to get distracted by the broader needs of the organisation and staff during a crisis.

But to support staff health and wellbeing, you need to take the time to check in with yourself. Leaders should maintain regular catch ups with trusted colleagues, mental health professionals or other support providers to ensure their own health.

Talking openly about their own mental health with their staff can also be beneficial – both in building rapport and developing a sense of trust and connection – and in helping staff feel more comfortable in sharing their own experiences and difficulties.

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