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Hitting the Wall - Supporting Staff During the Third Lockdown

When we encountered the first lockdown, we all pushed to adapt to our situation. New ways of working and living emerged within days as we shifted to a Zoom world of working, virtual family quizzes and Joe Wickes online workouts with the family. It was novel and new.

Now, after two lockdowns and months of virtual working, people are getting sick of Zoom. They are craving human interaction. They’re tired of trying to find the motivation to be positive. And I won’t even share the choice words my friend uttered yesterday when I asked if she would be joining in with Joe’s online PE session. In short, it was a no.

Right now, a lot of people are quite simply exhausted. After much hope for a brighter 2021, the announcement of a third lockdown days into the new year has meant a deep descent on the Coronacoaster. With that, there has been a marked shift in my management discussions as we move from talking about staff anxiety and stress to the current reality where signs of fatigue and low mood are emerging. In training sessions, people are talking less about worry and anxiety and more about emotional exhaustion.

This all leads to higher levels of emotionality. Frustration. Signs of conflict. People have shorter fuses.

It means we have less tolerance. Less focus. Less concentration.

More isolation. Depression. Burnout.

And across the board, less energy.

From a leadership perspective, it is critical that the messaging around workplace wellbeing acknowledges this shift in people’s mindset and mood and that expectations are adapted accordingly.

It is time to pause

I hear so many people using the phrase ‘normalising’ mental health and to open the narrative around the subject of mental illness. A big part of that is understanding and education, something that goes way beyond mental health awareness and focuses instead on open communication and active listening. When we make assumptions about what someone needs for their own mental health and impose solutions about what we think is right for them it can fall way far from the mark and actually make them feel more alone and unheard. I have seen so many examples of this recently, although coming from a place of good intent it actually was more divisive than anything.

This really is a time for intentional pacing, a concept I use in change management sessions to emphasise the times we need to slow down, pause to apply the brakes and the times we need to accelerate.

Right now, we need to pause. Take a moment to reflect and talk to employees about what they need and what can help. Review current working routines that may have been implemented months ago and see if it still works. Maybe all the Zoom calls aren’t really that essential? Maybe people need more 1-1 time with their manager or a close colleague. Maybe they need to change their work routine so they get more time to go for a walk and get fresh air when it’s light.

Compassionate leadership needs intent

Compassion is something I have talked about so much in the last 12 months. It was the subject of the book I published in June 2020 and the talk I delivered at the Leaders in Wellbeing Summit 2020. Words like this have been used extensively but to truly demonstrate compassion, we need to have intent. Unlike empathy, which is typically impulsive, compassion is more conscious. Compassion enables us to move away from any bias or judgement and simply want to help based on a sense of common humanity. And critically, again unlike empathy, compassion is extremely proactive; it goes beyond emotion and into action. It is a much more solution-focused and as such, much more impactful.

But because this is a quality that is intentional, it requires a level of self-awareness and self-compassion. It requires an ability to reflect and think. It needs a consideration towards how you are treating yourself before you can move on to support others. It is impossible to demonstrate true compassion if you are out of balance and sync yourself, so it must start there. From this point, it is possible to move on to a point of compassionate leadership. Right now, this means being patient if someone is being reactive. Staying calm and composed to discuss behaviour and concerns in a way that genuinely seeks to understand what they may be feeling without judgement and providing assurance that is normal to feel this way.

So, a few things to consider to develop a compassionate and active approach right now:

  • Review current wellbeing offerings. Are they communicated effectively and do people know what is available to them?

  • Conduct regular formal and informal diagnostic assessments to see where people are at and what they need. These don’t have to be lengthy but they do need to be communicated well.

  • Invite staff to share what they want right now as it may be very different to what is being offered. Do they need practical help (such as financial advice) or emotional support (such as dealing with isolation)

  • Encourage managers to review their team schedules with their teams and promote flexibility; get feedback on what works for them and what does not.

  • Alleviate unnecessary pressures where possible. Conduct reviews with staff about work stress risk factors and protective factors.

  • Think about energy budgets; for everyone (including leaders). How are energy gains and drains being self-managed?

  • If training is being provided, really take the time to think about the complete process and experience from the employee perspective; do they understand what is being offered, why it is a priority, what to expect, why they should attend? Engagement is key.

  • Provide clarity and consistency where possible. Keep people informed with what you do know and can share.

Hitting and Overcoming The Wall:

This all relates to taking the time to get a real understanding of what the issues being faced represent and develop a targeted approach to helping. It means taking the time to actively explore what staff specifically need and how it can be provided. Feeling heard and valued is critical right now, even if it just means knowing that a manager understands if someone is feeling off and emotional. This will all build a foundation that is stronger together, where people feel understood and expectations on them are managed.

We have all heard so many times that this is a marathon not a sprint. Using a similar analogy, bear in mind that a lot of people have now hit the proverbial wall; their stored energy reserves are depleted, and they may be slowing down to walk or even stop. Physically and mentally, we need to help them to keep going at their own pace but with a supportive and reassuring understanding that hope is in sight and that even though we don’t even know where the finish line is right now, provide the assurance that things will get better and together we can keep going.

If you need any help or advice with the above, we are currently free consultations to support organisations with their wellbeing strategy.

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