There is no doubt that we are living through unprecedented times. With no apparent end in sight, we have learnt to cope with new ways of working and new ways of being. It’s not easy, but because as humans we are amazingly adaptable, we have done our best to make it all work.
But at what cost?
I’ve recently being doing some Bio-Chemistry of Stress and Resilience workshops with a leading homelessness charity. This wonderful charity has been on the frontline throughout the pandemic and has been an exemplar of how to look after your staff’s well-being during that time. I wanted to refine the programme’s content to reflect the impact of Covid-19, and so was looking to see if there was any research on how Covid-19 had affected our well-being. I found some research done by the ONS (Office of National Statistics) published about a month ago, about the mental health implications of the start and continuation of the pandemic.
Using a standard mental health measure for anxiety (0 being not anxious at all, 10 being extremely anxious) they measured the impact of the coronavirus and found that stress and anxiety levels were raised significantly at the beginning of the pandemic to nearly 50%, replying with a score above 5/10 and with the average being 5.2/10. Now, to give some context, during the entire year of 2019 we had been consistently at 3/10 or lower – that is a very significant average rise.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. As humans are amazingly adaptable, once the initial shock of Covid-19 and lockdown was over, we did bounce back somewhat, because as I’ve mentioned earlier us humans are amazingly resourceful and quickly get used to the ‘new lockdown normal’. However, the data backed up our own empirical research here at Meta with our extensive Meta leadership network, to show that although we did bounce back a little, we didn’t return to our baseline of 3/10. We actually are pretty consistent at 4/10 – so ALL of us currently have elevated levels of stress and anxiety, from our normal levels.
This research has only just been published, and it reflects the first stages of the pandemic. However, I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not back to anywhere near that 3/10. I’m not feeling OK and as if life is normal, that’s for sure! I still have good days and bad days, I’ve definitely got more positive, and I’ve definitely adapted my life and work to reflect the complex, challenging situation we find ourselves in. I’ve learnt how to deal with it (mostly), but I still find myself at times taking a snapshot of a Covid-19 life situation and thinking ‘what a crazy time I am living through!’
Yesterday I was in my local Sainsbury’s and, as I went through the checkout, for a moment reality kicked in – here I was paying through a big thick plastic shield, wearing a face mask. The checkout lady was wearing a mask, and then I looked around, suddenly noticing that everyone else in the store was wearing a mask too – it was like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, and I thought to myself, this is crazy, this isn’t normal, it’s very very abnormal! And at that moment, I could feel my own anxiety levels rise. Would things ever be normal again? How long will this strange and bizarre Covid nightmare continue?? Then my brain kicked into gear, my common sense, matter of fact self got back to accepting the reality of the situation, my anxiety subsided and I just ‘got on with life’ again.
You see that’s the thing, we’ve all got USED to the pandemic. Doesn’t make it any less anxious making, or less serious. Us humans are brilliant because we do bounce back, we make our lives work, no matter what challenging situations we find ourselves in. And that in itself is brilliant; but we also have got USED to and are tolerating things that actually we need to pay attention to.
Before the pandemic, there was already a silent killer at action in the UK and around the world. No-one really talked about it, but sure enough, from time to time, in every workplace and in every home it struck, silent but deadly – its name?
Before Covid we were seeing more and more of our leadership network suffering from stress-related illnesses, finding our own empirical evidence that stress-related illnesses were on the rise in the organisations we worked with. So much so that we were making it our focus to help local NHS organisations and others, what we’d now call ‘frontline services’, in the fight against stress.
Then Covid-19 struck, and we all pulled together, got stuff done and lived off adrenaline (one of the two primary stress hormones), as we worked our way through the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic threw up.
We have got used to stress as a fact of life, we’ve built up a tolerance to it – even before the pandemic we were complacent about it – but now as we come out of lockdown, we need to start talking about the inevitable ‘wave of mental health and well-being issues’ that is coming.
There is such a thing as stress fatigue. It’s also known more commonly as burnout, and without wanting to sound too dramatic, we all need to make sure that, right now, we’re doing what we can as individuals, team members, leaders and organisations to ensure that we don’t have a ‘wave of burnout’ as a result of this extended time we’ve been in lockdown.
No-one is taking the threat of stress seriously enough. Our body is not designed to be under such elevated levels of stress for such a sustained length of time. Yes, we’re brilliant at making things work, and during this crisis we’ve all pulled together, we’ve done amazing things, reacted and adapted to keep our businesses and our lives working. However, we need to start being honest with ourselves and with each other about just how stressed we really are, and what the long-term effects of that stress will be on our staff and our organisations.
Stress is very real, and it is absolutely here to stay. So, it’s time to start talking more openly about it. We need to be honest with ourselves about how much stress we are under and be kind to ourselves more often – filling our own fuel tanks more regularly to ensure that we’re doing what we can to combat our stress levels.
Then if you are a leader, you also need to be talking to your staff more about stress and doing what you can to support them through this easing of lockdown period and afterwards, when life is apparently back to a semblance of ‘normality’. You see the interesting thing about stress is that when adrenaline and cortisol are running around your system, you tend to be able to deal with most things, you ‘hold it together’, you make it work – however the serious health (mental and physical) implications tend to come AFTER the worst of the stressful period is over. It’s the mother of all hangovers – and we need to be making sure that we’re prepared and looking out for the signs right NOW.
So, what can you be doing as an individual? I’m sure that all of you reading this have at one time or another been taken through our FILLING YOUR FUEL TANK EXERCISE exercise. If you don’t know this exercise yet, just click on the link to access the PDF.
It essentially reminds us that we all need energy to thrive and need to keep on topping up that energy fuel tank during the day to ensure that we are performing at our best. Right now, I want you to think of your fuel tank as having a small hole in it. Metaphorically that’s the equivalent of being under these slightly elevated levels of stress – you’ll be burning up and losing more fuel than you would do usually. That means now, more than ever, you need to be making sure that you are topping up your fuel tank on a regular basis and making sure that you make time at the end of your working day to relax and unwind before you launch into your evening routine.
What can you do as a leader? Well you need to start the conversation with your staff members, or within your organisation. You need to realise that your staff (especially those who have been frontline workers), although apparently OK on the outside, are not going to be OK.
NOW is the time to be pro-active about your staff’s mental health and well-being. Now is the time to give them the tools for their own toolkits to be able to understand stress and have some practical tools in their own toolkit to reduce its impact going forwards. It’s time to talk about WHAT particular things are stressing people in your organisation out. Is it homeworking? Isolation? Technology? Fear of losing their jobs? Then, as an organisation and leadership team, you can start actively looking at doing what you can to mitigate these stress factors.
I cannot emphasise enough how important it will be for you as organisational leaders to be doing this RIGHT NOW. Act before it’s too late – this might sound doom and gloom, it’s not meant to, it’s just meant to give a bit of a reality check on the current mental health of the workforce and the workplace, and I hope you’ll heed this call to action.
An organisation is made up of individuals, those individuals pull together to become more than the sum of their parts, their combined strength is what makes your organisation strong and successful, their strength makes your organisation excel. So, make sure you’re looking after your people, because if you look after them, they will look after you.
At Meta we are passionate about helping individuals, teams and organisations be their best. We have been developing and refining workshops that combine the latest cutting-edge research on resilience and combatting stress with practical tools that can help everyone who attends to have their own resilience and stress toolkits.
Right now, in this pandemic period, we want to ensure that we support leaders and organisations like yours to equip your staff with the tools needed to beat stress and to negate the negative mental health effects of this pandemic. That’s what we’ve been doing recently with frontline organisations, and we’d like to extend that offer of help and support to you too.
If you’d like to ‘talk about stress’ and re-build the resilience of your staff and your organisation, then please do drop us a line and we’ll do what we can to help.
We’re also here for you, the individual reading this blog. If you’re getting this, then you’re a member of our Meta family and as such we’d like to extend our own offer of support through this period too – don’t suffer alone, please do reach out and we’ll do what we can to support you in the coming weeks and months ahead.
Have a wonderful month all of you, and please do call on us should you need to.