Finding peace in a pandemic

My journey to finding out how we can look after our own and others mental wellbeing in the workplace

Justine Middleton
Nov 10, 2020 · 11 min read
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As we have been forced into lockdown, shifting from real interactions to virtual, we have never been more isolated and paradoxically, connected at the same time. Zoom fatigue is real and burnout is inevitable as we are glued to our screens in back-to-back meetings while sitting at temporary desks waiting for this to all blow over. Yet here we are, seven months on. As we look around our makeshift home workspace, we are beginning to realise things may not go back to the way they were for a while (if at all). We are in the middle of the “biggest behaviour change experiment to happen the history of humanity”

Technology has allowed a lot of businesses to continue operation through the pandemic, shifting to a remote work model, resulting in increased productivity. However, what started as a welcome relief from the tiresome daily commutes has become a new kind of daily slog. As the pandemic trudges on and lockdowns box us in, colleagues are under increasing pressure to maintain family, work and care responsibilities all with a smile on their face. Nearly half of the UK population (45%) are experiencing anxiety and stress in response to this pandemic and the challenges that it has presented. As our physical and mental health is in decline so is our ability to cope. Now more than ever, we need to look out for one another.

Giving people the support and flexibility they need to continue working has been vital throughout the pandemic. Within Hippo we have been taking time to discuss the challenges we have been facing and have taken steps to make sure that people are looking after their mental and physical health. In this article, I wanted to share ways in which we have been working to improve our virtual workplace.

Raising awareness

Maintaining clear and consistent channels of communication to the wider team are key in providing stability and clarity to a somewhat confusing time. With so much uncertainty on the horizon, having a regular bit of familiarity such as a Friday all staff call, newsletter, week note or email can help retain some normality. In this you can make sure that people are aware of the options available to support them, encouraging them to:

  • Create a wellbeing slack channel (or equivalent) to support one another and share useful information
  • Contact the Ops team if you need equipment to make working from home easier
  • Use an employee assistance program to access up to four structured counselling sessions available if needed.

Identifying cause and effect

Although I’ve referred to this section as identifying cause and effect it might be more accurate if we referred to it as effect and cause, as a little bit of reverse engineering is needed to get to the root cause of the challenges that people are currently facing in the workplace.

Recently we asked colleagues about their current experience at work. Initial responses ranged from tired and worried about the ramifications of Covid-19 over winter to seeing an increase in a work/life balance and productivity. Illustrating just how diverse everyone’s experience is currently as some are weighed down by increasing pressures and others are becoming more buoyant through a more liberated way of working. When asked how we could do better there was a desire for later start times, increased guidance documentation, and dedicated time for more social interactions i.e. flexibility, reassurance and connection.

Assign Mental health first aiders

Having a number of channels for people to use to support their mental health is important to encourage a level of participation that works for everybody. For those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in group conversations or prefer having one to one conversations, we have two dedicated mental health first aiders who are available for support.

They are available to all colleagues to listen without judgement and give support to those who are experiencing poor mental health. They are trained and have understanding of symptoms people may experience and aim to provide a safe place to talk, help direct to appropriate support available, and help identify if someone may be experiencing a mental health issue. If they recognise someone may be experiencing poor mental health they will initiate a conversation with that person to encourage them to talk and can also give support for those concerned about someone else but are unsure how to approach the topic of mental health with them.

Reviewing ways of working

Through remote working, we have started to try and strike a balance between life and work. The once coveted work life balance has revealed itself as less than perfect as the dream does not match the reality (cat tails on calls anyone?!). Everyone has their preferred way of working with some people being easily able to switch to remote, others embrace the work life blur and for some it’s a tumultuous sea of uncertainty, guilt and anxiety. Unfortunately I suffer from the latter and as the pressure piles on, both from my own high expectations and the demands that I perceive the client to have of me, I have come to a juncture where I need to review my ways of working, so I asked myself these questions:

  1. Am I taking on too much? Probably.
  2. Am I trying to put 100% into everything whilst feeling failure when I don’t have the capacity to do so? Yep.
  3. Could I delegate some work? Most definitely.

Taking time to periodically answer these questions when feeling stressed can be strangely calming as the solution to the problem becomes inherent in the question posed.

Whether you thrive on structure, work in time-bursts or prefer deep work, figuring out the way you work best and honouring that through clear boundaries will play a large role in your health at work. We are in a fortunate position to be able to decide how and when we want to work (to a degree) with the full trust of our managers, teams and bosses. This can be overwhelming. As a person who suffers from depression, I find structure comforting and a way to overcome feelings of demotivation and anxiety that often comes hand in hand with this condition. To be suddenly faced with a blank canvas is both liberating and petrifying and so it’s no surprise that some of us may feel a little lost at the moment.

If you are struggling to review your ways of working, I would encourage you to reach out to a colleague or manager to help. By having someone else ask the right questions, we can regain some space to think, reflect and solve the problem at hand.

Building supportive relationships

Before talking about how important relationships and communities at work are, we need to start with understanding why it’s important. Humans have evolved as social beings to help ensure physical survival in volatile environments, yet with the advent of technological advances this human connection has evolved to serve a different need: psychological survival.

During the first lockdown, almost 1/4 of adults experienced feelings of loneliness. As we are about to enter into a second lockdown, this figure is most likely to rise as the wide-ranging effects of the restrictions become more acute. Loneliness is experienced by everyone on varying scales, often triggered by significant life events, bereavements or nationally celebrated holidays such as Christmas or Eid. If experienced for a sustained period of time (becoming chronic) then research suggests that it can lead to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress. Highlighting the need for strong support systems to be put in place so we can help each other through this tough period. Here are a few that we are trying.

Provide support through advocacy

We have established a network of advocates who provide support, impartial advice and act as a sounding board to their colleagues. Each advocate is assigned four advocatees to whom they provide a confidential, safe space to air any difficulties or challenges they may be grappling with at that time. To become an advocate is an entirely voluntary position and there is the opportunity to step down if priorities and workloads change. The advocatee groups range from directors right through to graduates, with some groups preferring to work in a group setting and others one to one sessions.

Being an advocate myself, I have found the sessions with my advocatees to be a therapeutic and welcome change to the daily cadence of work. Not only is it a great chance to engage with colleagues across the business at all levels, but having the opportunity to listen to someone else’s challenges can help normalise the ones that I personally may face.

Develop Communities of Practice

Now is the time to prioritise meetings and events that strengthen bonds, increase collaboration and promote communication amongst your own community of practice. Not only are they beneficial from a networking perspective, but hopefully they should be a place where “stupid” questions can be asked, common grievances can be shared and successes can be celebrated. They provide a space for you to test ideas out, flex your social skills and, dare I say it…have a bit of fun.

Get social

Over the past few months I’ve seen a shift in the standard social event being geared towards a pint in the pub to more creative endeavours such as board game groups, crafting clubs and scheduled virtual tea breaks. Slack channels have popped up and Zoom meetings scheduled. We even have our own egghead to host quizzes! If you are fortunate to work in a friendly team then embrace the social side that you would otherwise experience in the office and try to make time for it. Your sanity will thank you.

Encourage Exercise and movement

For a lot of people, removing the daily commute has also reduced the amount of steps we take each day (one day I clocked a mere 150 steps!). As we replace the sprint for the bus with a stroll to the fridge, our physical health is suffering. Exercise not only helps us to keep that pandemic paunch at bay, but to reinvigorate the mind and cope with stress.

Since lockdown, we have been fortunate enough to have access to a series of free remote yoga classes, twice weekly. The sessions, run by Taylor Selby, bring a welcome focus on releasing tension from the hips and shoulders, I have been able to ensure that I take time out at least twice a week to give my body the proper care it needs. It’s all too easy to forget to move, take a screen break or even drink water, especially as back-to-back video calls become more the norm, so to have a regular yoga lesson has been a great reliever of stress and general tension.

Unfortunately this isn’t a viable option for all workplaces and as some businesses are suffering financially it may be hard to find and/or justify the funds for this type of activity. There are however, a few creative ways you can introduce and promote exercise for your colleagues.

  • Walking meetings — encourage your colleagues to take a walk during a morning catch-up or one-to-one sessions.
  • Walk around the world — setup a competition for teams to see where their accumulated steps would take them if they walked.
  • Running club — A gentle jog around the block with colleagues, mapping and monitoring circuit times, running a marathon in a week. There are various different running activities that can be organised to encourage both beginner and experienced runners to get moving.
  • Dance like nobody’s watching — holding a lunchtime “cameras off” dance session, with dave from accounts on the decks (or whoever has a flair for DJing). Make it fun, and easy for people to join in.

These are just a few ideas to get people involved and there’s probably loads I’ve missed off. If you do have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them!

Taking Time Out

Regular all staff calls

Every Friday, we each take 1 hour out of our working day to connect with other colleagues, listen to business updates, watch lightning talks and sometimes take part in a virtual quiz. These all staff calls happen every week without fail, and provide a welcome break to my diary of meetings.

Make working hours flexible

Mass remote working has seen a significant shift in the work life balance and the way that people choose to work. With the real possibility of a loved one becoming incredibly sick and possibly not surviving this pandemic, our connections with family and friends have become more important than ever. People have been pushed to the brink as they are attempting to juggle back to back meetings, childcare, elderly parents/relatives and new pets (there has been a 125% increase in adverts posted across online marketplaces during lockdown for puppies, kittens, dogs and cats).

By supporting flexible working hours and being empathetic to the unique situations that our colleagues are facing, we can help ease the burdens of others by helping a parent pick up their kids, a pet to be taken to the vet, or a sick family member to be looked after.

Being Mindful

Promoting honest and open conversations

At a recent virtual back to base we heard stories from colleagues around the business being incredibly open and honest about personal struggles that inevitably impact the way they work. One colleague opened up about their chronic insomnia and managing client expectations on project as they shift their working patterns around their health. Another relayed a recent user research session with a non verbal autistic volunteer and the lengths that they went to make sure that the virtual session was accessible for them. This prompted a few tears of joy as we had two parents with autistic children who were happy that there was someone who was looking out for the wellbeing of their children through this kind of inclusive user research.

I’m often pleasantly surprised of the candid nature of my colleagues and the safe space that has been created within the Hippo culture to facilitate this kind of sharing. It’s something I’ve not experienced at any other company and whilst it might not be everyone’s cup of tea to be so open, having a flat culture has enabled us to get candid feedback which inevitably will help us improve and grow.

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself

Of all the lessons learned so far from this pandemic, this is by far the most important. Be kind to yourself. We are often our own worst enemy as we put high expectations on ourselves often borne out of a skewed idea of what good looks like. Focus on good enough, aim for imperfection and prioritise your mental health.

What started as a blog has ended up being a love letter to myself, but don’t let that put you off. Hopefully, by sharing this journey I will have helped some people onto the path to better mental wellbeing.

…………………………………

What we’re doing next to support mental health and accessibility:
Hippo Digital participated Purple Tuesday 2020. As we have seen so much value in speaking openly about our challenges with mental wellbeing, this year we will be carrying out some internal workshops with our staff to discuss mental health and accessibility within Hippo, and how we can better support our staff. We will also be running an internal accessibility audit of our website.

If you have any comments or journeys of your own you’d like to share, I would love to hear them.

Hippo Digital

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