COVID-19 is not over! Yet complacency seems to be setting in, as much with regards our emotional recovery as in relation to the transmission of the virus. It is too easy to under-estimate the ongoing and cumulative emotional impact of COVID-19 on our leaders and employees. As a global society and as a global economy, we have historically had a tendency to brush aside or minimise our mental health needs. We seem to have chosen, through societal and organisational norms, to ‘tough it out’. Yet we know empirically and evidentially that globally, even before COVID-19, we face increasing acuity and volume of mental ill-health.
Then along comes COVID-19 and individuals and communities are confronted by their mortality, by their social isolation and disconnection, by their economic dispensability and by their existential fragility. The scope and scale of COVID-19 may also have resulted in a sense of powerlessness over our own mental health. However this is far from the truth! Experience and research around the world in the past few months show that each and every one of us, regardless of personal circumstances and demographics, has significant ability to influence positively our own, and others’, mental health … if we do so proactively, formally, sustainably and systematically.
Based on research from various leading healthcare organisations around the globe and my own experience with leaders and employees through this pandemic to date, I have found that each and every one of us can positively self-care if we follow seven simple steps. It should also be noted that, in general, it has proven most impactful if individuals follow these seven steps in the order they are presented. While individuals might, for example, be struggling with issues related to steps six or seven, if they don’t do the work in the previous steps they tend to be unsuccessful in implementing the latter steps:
- Acknowledge your own feelings and accept that others may react differently to the same situation. Feeling distressed is an experience that most people are likely to experience during this pandemic. It is common to be feeling this way during a major crisis and it is healthy to acknowledge these feeling openly. It is also very helpful to know and monitor your own personal signs of distress, both physical and behavioural, so that you know quickly when you need to seek support or change your self-care activities.
- Take care of your basic needs first! Maintain your day-to-day, normal activities and routine wherever and whenever possible. COVID-19 is an abnormal event and for our well-being we need to retain some semblance of normalcy. Make every effort to maintain your sleep, rest and respite patterns and eat sufficient and healthy food. Make time to unwind. Take time for yourself. Try to do the physical activities you enjoy. Essentially don’t use stimulants such as smoking, alcohol, caffeine or drugs to deal with your emotions. They don’t help.
- Stay connected, especially with your loved ones. Create a communication plan that allows you to stay closely and consistently connected to all of your loved ones throughout the pandemic. In addition develop a home crisis management plan for you and your loved ones, being sure to actively involve all members in the process. Conduct drills to test and improve your plan. Most importantly keep discussing the crisis calmly and factually with your loved ones to help them remain connected to what is going on for you and them.
- Draw on the skills you have used in the past that have helped you to manage previous life challenges. Employees and leaders often report that they have no relatable experience to COVID-19. In fact, almost every one of us has, at some point in our lives, faced significant life challenges or crises. The skills we learned in those times are likely to be valid and applicable to COVID-19 times too. Be very conscious of your own skills set and how this can help you and others get through this crisis.
- Turn to your colleagues for support. While formal systems for ‘buddying’ or supporting colleagues have often proven unsuccessful in our pre-COVID-19 world, we are finding these very same buddying systems, if implemented according to the following six governing principles, are proving extremely positive in terms of helping leaders and employees navigate these difficult times:
- Buddying should be 100% voluntary and confidential.
- Buddying pairs works best. Don’t over-engineer or over-complicate it. Keep it local and simple.
- Formal works better than informal.
- Match buddies, not based on existing relationships, but on encouraging diversity and new learning.
- Don’t reinforce existing organisational silos or cliques.
- Buddying does not replace friendship or leadership.
- Seek accurate information. COVID-19 has magnified the 21st century media phenomenon in terms of the somewhat contradictory roles both mainstream, digital and social media play in the dissemination of facts and information versus the promotion of commentary, opinion and agendas. Consistently I hear leaders and employees struggling to discern fact from fiction and fear. Experience shows that the most practical, simple and effective way to discern the media deluge is to identify a small number of reputable, professional medical organisations and to regularly review their guidance with regards COVID-19. Put simply it is proving emotionally critical to stay up to date with professional, medical advice, facts and support and to prioritise information and recommendations provided by leading, recognised and respected medical bodies.
- Limit your media time, especially coverage that you know is inaccurate or you perceive as upsetting. It is too easy to turn on the TV and to sit and soak up the ‘news’. Unfortunately media coverage is not always representative of or consistent with medical fact and can, at times, be designed to encourage the viewer to ‘stay tuned’ and be emotionally engaged. It may be the hardest challenge of all, but turning off the distressing or inaccurate information is proving critical to employee and leader well-being.
These seven steps might seem obvious or even superficial. However it is the simplicity and practicality of these steps that enhances their likelihood of improving employees’ and leaders’ self-care and recovery. Historically as a global society we have been remiss in our deficient focus on mental ill-health and distress. If COVID-19 does have a silver lining let it be a change to our societal fabric where each and every leader, each and every employee and each and every individual, anywhere and everywhere in the world, develops the skills to emotionally self-care and to emotionally support others. This could be the most significant legacy arising from the social fracturing we currently call COVID-19.