This global pandemic has been and continues to be a challenge for most people; from travel restrictions and cancelled holidays, to loss of income, the tragic and devastating loss of loved ones and the development of new or pre-existing mental health related problems, including anxiety and depression. The initial shock felt at the start of the Covid 19 pandemic was a normal reaction to a global health scare; we didn’t know what was happening, what narrative to believe, and those in positions of authority, in most cases, reacted in a manner that served to evoke more fear and confusion. People felt afraid, out of control, restricted, trapped, and concerned or worried about loved ones, food supply, finances and general health and safety.
While the fears and worries prevail, some people have been able to adapt to what is happening by accepting the unknown, accepting what is out of our control, and implementing adaptive choices based on what is within our control, including: moving work online, creating wine and tapas meet ups in video chat rooms, deeply cleaning the house, enjoying time for baking, re-connecting with family members and making healthy choices in response to the information presented. Some of these people adapted by seeking meaning in suffering and chose to see the pandemic through a positive perspective; they were able to allow the pandemic to provide an opportunity to recognise or reassert what truly matters, and make quality of life adjustments accordingly.
However, not everyone has been able to adapt or cope in a healthy way with how they have been feeling, because they have not been aware of healthy coping strategies, because the pandemic forced them into terrifying situations where they were not safe and unable to escape, or because the pandemic has traumatised them. When the initial shock activated the central nervous system, causing a fight, flight or freeze response, instead of experiencing the natural rebalancing effects of the autonomic nervous system, which automatically kicks in to process fear and shock, restore stability to heart rate, breathing, and feeling safe, and enabling a return to rational thinking, which would allow a person to make healthy choices to support emotional wellness, if they wish to, some people have remained in a highly activated state, causing them feel that they are not safe, and to suffer intense and overwhelming emotional distress, intense anxiety and strong feelings of depression that they can no longer cope with.
This highly activated state was made worse by the minute-to-minute updates about the situation, portrayed through dramatic and fearmongering communication styles from the media, fuelling people’s fears of a highly contagious virus that may affect them or loved ones, fears of a conspiracy to remove human rights and freedoms, fears of forced untested vaccinations, or fears about being in a pandemic situation forever. Due to remaining in a highly activated state, some of these people have developed symptoms of acute stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to feeling continually anxious and afraid, and without the ability to restore balance or calm, these people have needed to find external sources to help them cope with the intensity of their thoughts, feelings and emotions. Some turned to a glass or few of wine every evening to provide short term relief from anxiety or a low mood, others have chosen food, drugs, painkillers or addictive or obsessive behaviours to distract from how they are feeling. For many, even when the pandemic passes and COVID 19 becomes similar to an annual flu season, those who have been traumatised will continue to experience anxiety and depression until they learn how to heal and restore their inner calm.
This picture is nothing new; the pandemic has simply brought to our attention the very real suffering so many experience as a result of trauma inducing events. What we can take from this pandemic is that it has brought to the table an opportunity for long overdue conversations with those may be suffering. Having these conversations needs to happen in a safe place to ensure people are not re-traumatised or triggered into states they cannot control. The following points outline how to create a safe space to address mental health related matters at work:
Create a safe space: In the context of mental health, a safe space means an environment that allows a person to manage their emotional distress in an effective way. This may involve providing a physical space where people can go for a quiet moment to restore emotional balance and distract from negative and fear thoughts. It also means providing ‘safe people’ to hold a trauma informed space of compassion, empathy and kindness, where a person feels safe to open up, share their struggles and work on solutions.
Provide safe support people: A person who is safe is trauma-informed, which means they know how to create a safe place, foster trust, empower the person they are supporting, and are accepting, compassionate and able to support emotional regulation, which means the facilitator needs to be able to self-regulate and have a good level of emotional intelligence. You may have a mental health first aider or HR person with specialised training who would be suitable for this role, you may wish to bring in a trauma-informed therapist or psychologist to facilitate employee psychological well-being and mental health, or you may wish to form a mental health policy that provides the fees for an employee to attend a certain number or private and confidential therapy sessions outside of the office.
Establish psychological safety: Because trauma inducing events can activate the central nervous system to behave as if a real danger is present, even when the danger or perceived danger has passed, traumatised people continue to experience the sensations of being in danger, under attack, or in the fear scenario even when it is safe. By encouraging the development of positive coping skills, this solutions-focused attitude helps to activate the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for logic and reason, which can enable a person to begin to recognise that there is no actual real danger right now, in this moment, rather there is a ‘what if’ fear, which is an entirely different story. When a person can logically assert that they are safe right now, this can help reduce symptoms of emotional distress and sometimes help restore some sense of calm.
Know how to manage an emotional crisis: If someone is emotionally distressed or having an anxiety attack, the five senses exercise is one simple, non-invasive and effective technique that can be offered to help bring a person back into the present moment, where they can be reminded that they are safe right now. Ask the person to do the following five things, connecting with each sense in turn:
Be clear on what is suitable office based mental health support?
It is important to understand that as a manager or colleague you are not expected to be a psychologist or therapist, but there are some practices that you can provide that offer effective support and aid in the reduction of symptoms of anxiety, stress, fear and depression.
Help them to restore routine: Creating a sense of routine can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression because routines help to provide a sense of structure and security where you know what to expect, which can be useful for times of uncertainty or with feelings of being out of control. Creating a routine might include beginning with the same morning routine upon waking, taking set tea and lunch breaks through the day, scheduling time to be alone, putting a workout in the diary, finishing work at the same time and not taking work home, and making a note each day about what you feel grateful for.
Help reduce pressure: What can you do to reduce the pressure your employee is feeling? Is there a project someone else can do right now? What can be delegated or delayed for a short time? What part of their workload can you take on for a short-time? What low priority items can be let go? And what can you say to let this person know that their mental health challenges are not causing their job to be at risk, but that you will support them in healing and returning to wellness, as much as you can in your professional capacity.
Remind them of their accomplishments: When we experience intense emotions, it is common for the brain to turn to negative thinking, with feelings of guilt, shame and hopelessness. However, these negative thoughts are often cognitive distortions and not actual facts or truth. By challenging negative and fear thoughts, a person can be helped in restoring balance. One way to do this in a work environment is to remind the person of their accomplishments, and it doesn’t matter if they are small, because many small ones collaborate to create a new feeling of positivity and competence.
Encourage them to seek professional support: Have a few contact numbers of psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists that they can choose to contact, and remind them that asking for help is an act of vulnerability that takes great strength, and it is a choice to self-love, because you care enough to want to feel better.