16th February 2021

It’s now almost a year since the world turned upside down and we were told to stay home to save lives. We’ve all had to juggle work, home schooling, family life and the stresses and uncertainties of a crisis that has rumbled on for far longer than any of us expected.

We’ve heard many people joke that the start of 2021 felt like the longest January on record, and February is also plodding on. Behind the black humour there is a real question – why does this lockdown feel so much harder than previous ones? How can we help ourselves get through it? And how can employers and business owners support their people during this endless period?

Heidi Wadsworth, who leads our training programmes at Reality HR, is hosting a free, live online Support your employees’ wellbeing workshop for managers on February 24, from 10am to 12pm to help answer some of those questions.

Ahead of that session, we asked her why it’s important that wellness and mental health stay high on the agenda.

We’re all used to lockdowns now – so why does this one feel so much more difficult than the last?

Heidi: I think it’s just the sheer relentlessness of it – it’s gone on for so long now. If you think right back to the start in March 2020, there was a novelty factor – of course the circumstances were awful and nobody wanted to be locked down, trying to home school their children and work at the same time – but aspects of it were quite fun for a little while.

We had new things to focus on, and new things to learn (what does the word furlough mean? How do you bake banana bread?) and we had to make it work. It was a new feeling then, and now it’s definitely not new any more!

A lot of people will say that the joy in things like Zoom quizzes has gone. People who were making banana bread in the first lockdown probably aren’t making it now. There was glorious sunshine, we were going for walks and exploring areas we had never been to in our local area, hearing the birds sing as we rejoiced in the lack of traffic.

Perhaps that’s rose-tinted glasses but in some ways for a lot of people, it was quite a positive time. Now, it’s been going on so long we’ve lost our enthusiasm for all of that and, perhaps it’s because of the vaccine and there are signs of a way out, we’re really feeling that it’s a slog until we get there.

How do you think people are feeling?

Heidi: Our clients are telling us that they, and their teams, are experiencing  a whole variety of emotions, but I think a key one is frustration, in part due to the way the rules have been so complicated and changed so often that it’s easy to lose track of what you can and can’t do.

You see many more instances now of people breaking the rules, and others having a view on that, so there is a divide within society – a feeling that some people are not taking it seriously while others are doing their bit. People judge others for not wearing masks, and there just seems to be a resentment that wasn’t there before. Then you only have to go on social media to see the differing opinions of Covid deniers and others, as well as those who present an amazing view of their life and that can make others feel inadequate.

I also get the sense that we’ve somehow lost that community feeling, that we’re all in it together. We’re not doing it for our villages and towns and Captain Tom and the NHS any more – we’re just trying to get through it. We’re hunkering down in our houses and doing what we have to do to survive.

People may also be feeling the strain financially. There are a lot of people with money worries – perhaps they are working but their partner has been made redundant, or they have been furloughed on 80% wages when they actually relied on the full 100% of their wages every month. Maybe they relied on overtime that isn’t there now. Money worries can, and do, add a big burden to the stresses people are experiencing.

Are the long nights to blame? Will we feel better when spring around the corner?

Heidi: I think that’s definitely an important factor. In autumn when we started to lose the daylight, people started to really miss normal life. It was a lot easier in August and September than it is when you are getting up in the dark, walking to a little home office in the dark, working in the dark and then walking back to our lounge in the dark.

The other factor is the loss  of  separation between home and work for those working from home. When you’re getting a commute in, at least you’re leaving the house and getting daylight. There is evidence that we need that light to help keep us well, and we’re just not getting it at the moment.

What can we do to get through it?

Heidi: You may roll your eyes at the thought of Zoom quizzes now, but some of those cheesy, fun things we did to keep our home workers involved with their teams early on could probably be reintroduced.

During that period when the world started to feel a bit more normal in the summer, when people started going back to the office for a while, a lot of these things dropped off and have never come back again. They are probably needed more now than they were during the summer when people could get out and about more.

Employers need to remember this. Without overloading people with video calls, which can be tiring, making eye contact and seeing a real person that you don’t live with is so important. Do have those catchup sessions over coffee, or an evening drink, or a Zoom quiz, even if it feels like an effort at first. Just talking – not even talking about work, but just having a chat – can make all the difference.

How can an employer or manager spot if a person is struggling?

Heidi: Ask! But make sure it’s clear that you’re really interested in the answer. When you ask people if they are OK and they say “fine”, treat that as a red flag and an opportunity to follow up with “How are you really?”. Make it clear that it’s a real question, and that you’re interested in the answer.

It’s really important to be aware of the signs because there’s a sense that everyone’s putting a brave face on it because we haven’t got a choice and we’ve got to get on with it.

It is so important that you have opportunities for people to talk and relax with each other. Have those coffee morning sessions, because if you see people that aren’t coming to those or taking part in them fully, maybe you recognise by their absence or attitude that something might be wrong.

You can say things like “I’ve noticed you’ve been quieter on the calls lately” or “you’ve not joined any of the coffee calls for a while, is everything OK?” You’re giving that person permission to answer the question honestly.

It seems that because of the strain of lockdown, we’re all more aware of the need to look after ourselves. Will mental health and wellness stay on the agenda for employers when the Covid-19 crisis is finally over?

More and more companies were already aware of these issues before lockdown happened, recognising the need for talking about wellness, training in it and having policies that encourage people’s wellbeing. It’s definitely not going to go away.

However, there are still companies out there whose leaders don’t think it’s any of their business, or that it’s very important. They have the mindset that if people are ill then they need to see a doctor, and if they’re fine then they can go to work. I hope that will change – it’s certainly a more prevalent conversation now.

Tell us about the free Reality HR wellness training session

Throughout 2020 we supported employers with a lot of free resources, including factsheets and guides and a series very popular webinars. We thought it was important during this difficult period to continue that support, so this free session is one of the ways we are doing that.

It’s a two-hour interactive workshop to give line managers and business owners an awareness of some of the Mental Health challenges that people are facing now, to give them confidence to have those difficult conversations, and to talk about wellbeing.  We’ll discuss how individuals that attend the training can support their own wellbeing, and what they can do within their company  to help the collective wellbeing of their staff.

I’m going to be asking people to brainstorm ideas so we can all take away some practical actions to help  build a culture of wellbeing. .

Importantly, we’re going to stress that it’s not just about the coffee mornings and fun ideas. You can’t on the one hand be saying we’re going to be having quizzes, and on the other have a culture where we discipline people for the smallest misdemeanour and micro-manage them.

A wellbeing policy needs to touch every aspect of your culture – the types of people you recruit, how you give them the space to learn and do their jobs well, and how you trust people and let them know they are trusted. The aim is that people go away inspired with some practical tips that they can implement straight away for themselves and the business.

Reality HR’s free wellbeing training session takes place on Wednesday, February 24th from 10am to 12pm. Places are free of charge, but we ask you to book a place. See here for more details.