Do you remember what it was like before Covid-19? Some of us might wistfully reminisce about the ‘good old days’ all those weeks ago, but even the rose-tinted glasses cannot hide fact that we have been facing significant challenges for some time now.

Pre Covid-19, over half of all working days lost were due to stress, anxiety, and depression. A perceived lack of managerial support, too much pressure and having to deal with violence and aggression in the workplace are among the main reasons, say the Health and Safety Executive.

Terry Streather is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood Training, Mental Health and Personal Safety Specialists.
Terry Streather is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood Training, Mental Health and Personal Safety Specialists.

This pandemic has certainly made things worse.
Staff on the shop floor are having to deal with the darker side of human behaviour from some customers. Usdaw reported in April that violence and aggression against shop workers had doubled in the month, leading to calls for ‘hazard pay’.

Add to that personal struggles, including the worry of getting ill themselves, financial concerns, caring for vulnerable loved ones and managing to homeschool and we have a challenge to even the most resilient of retail worker.

Another report in April, from the Lancet Psychiatry Journal, warned of a likely increase in social isolation and loneliness, factors strongly associated with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide attempts.

Be Human

There are plenty of fantastic guides available on how to move back to some form of ‘normal’, but in truth, not even the experts have been through anything quite like this. We are dealing with real people and we all handle change and uncertainty differently.

For some, the changes are massive, like the loss of a loved one or working from home. Don’t be surprised if some return with very different priorities, ‘there is more to life being abused and threatened for asking people to keep a safe distance’. For others, it may be the realisation that ‘I don’t have all the answers’ and ‘I’m not superhuman’.

Real support is so much more than just passing on the number of the Employee Assistance Program.

Put your people first

‘What do we have to do?’ is the wrong question. If your starting point is ‘compliance’, I would encourage you to think again.  Employees want to know they are valued, not an afterthought with the bottom-line taking priority.

Rather than assuming, ask your people what their concerns are.

Include them in changes to the work environment and measures to keep them safe. You are more likely to get buy-in, and they may come up with creative solutions. 

Provide clarity wherever you can, and if you can’t, be open about it. Respond to concerns quickly, for most people, no news is hardly ever good news.

Encourage healthy body, healthy minds.

The CIPD reported in March that 70% of employers said their biggest challenge is making sure staff who are working remotely are staying physically and mentally well.

Some people may be really struggling with this, others will be raring to go. Encourage your people to share what works for them and share the good news stories. Advice is so much better coming from people we can identify with, rather than Instagram experts or corporate push comms. Getting enough sleep, eating properly, and taking regular breaks will help with those feelings of ‘always being on’.

Rebuilding teams may be a challenge. Some risk burnout, doing the work that five people used to, and some ‘rust- out’, having been furloughed. Bring the team together for non-work virtual events, like coffee mornings or quiz nights. Use your imagination, within reason.

Could this make us stronger?

If there is a silver lining, maybe it is that we have all realised that regardless of pay grade, job title or company car, none of us are indestructible.

Serious adversity can trigger mental ill health, but it can also spark growth. We are a resilient species and have it within us to come back as a better, stronger, and more creative versions of ourselves.


Terry Streather is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood Training, Mental Health and Personal Safety Specialists.

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