Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Written by: Jorim Holtey-Weber, Guest Writer Brainz Magazine
With this article, I want to show how the pandemic inherently brings us opportunities to create better organizations; with a particular focus on employee health. Let’s start with a definition. When I use the term “health”, I mean health in all its forms, although the ways I will describe in this article will most directly influence mental and social health. I have tried to keep this article relevant for most workplaces, no matter how strict the prevention measures.
COVID-19’s Influences at the Workplace
There are many levels on which COVID-19 has influenced work: abrupt changes in commercial activity, government restrictions, and (voluntary) social distancing, stock markets have crashed. Such changes came with job loss and unemployment, and for the ones not dismissed, a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about their professional future. This, in turn, threatens mental health  which is what the data show us.
Increased anxiety, paranoia, and depressive symptoms are the most prevalent mental health findings during these months [4-7]. Traumatic experiences such as job or employment dismissal, loss of friends or family members, and widespread panic could lead to post traumatic stress disorder (most likely to be captured as depressive symptoms and generalized anxiety disorder because the DSM-V doesn’t include viral infections as possible PTSD criteria ).
With the mental health crisis comes an increased need for mental healthcare (of up to 80% ). Access to therapy of any type is, however, largely limited due to governmental restrictions, financial situation, or waiting lists .
All this leaves us with a workforce that’s challenged by uncertainty (regarding their job and life), fear, anxiety, and depressive feelings, that is likely overworked, possibly without childcare and perhaps even facing burnout. The question comes up: What can we do?
The 3 Unexpected Ways
Many people connect workplace health promotion with a healthy lifestyle. This is correct – having good food at work, the possibility for employees to move, standing desks, etc. promotes health – but this picture is incomplete. Much more than these “lifestyle” aspects, the way work itself is organized – the tasks, the processes, the organization, the internal communication – promotes or suppresses health significantly .
Any change brings opportunities. Let’s look at the first one I identified:
1: (Re)define Your Purpose
Organizations and individuals have and continue to face a drastically changed reality, which threw them out of their habitual ways of doing things. For some, giving up seemed easier than continuing and adapting. For many, the question “why am I doing this?” or “why are we doing this?” came up [10-12]. What we are looking for with these questions is our “why”—our purpose.
Having a clear purpose can guide us in challenging times and allows us to have faith, hope, and make better decisions . For both organizations and the individuals inside them, now is a good time to (re)define their purpose.
And when you’re (re)defining your or your company’s purpose, try making it about something greater than yourself (not just “better than last year”, not just “control X% of the market”). Aim for win-win-win: you win, your employees/clients/partners win, the world wins. Also, there’s no need to carve the purpose into stone; it’s natural that it’ll evolve over time. Go with the flow .
How do you start?
For individuals, talk about what drives you, what motivates you. Underneath there are emotions and perhaps visions for the world. This is the start but sometimes outside support is asked for. I’ve gone through Phil Laut’s  Life Purpose Exercise with many of my clients and I found that has brought them a lot of clarity. For organizations, ask “what is the organization’s calling?”. Forget about competition and market for now. Look at business as an infinite game: players come and go, rules change, there’s no end, and there’s no winner .
What does your organization exist for? Feel free to brainstorm on this and try connecting the dots. Again, look for something inspiring and energizing that is greater than yourself (see above). Once you have (re)defined the purpose, making decisions should become much easier and you’ll be able to draw a sense of meaning from it .
2: Safe Space
Our personal life affects our professional life. Especially if there are personal crises. Many people cannot keep this from spilling over into their work. As mentioned above, uncertainty, traumatic events such as loss, financial cutbacks etc. can become a big stressor and lead to reduced mental health .
Because of various reasons, seeking therapy of any kind can be more challenging during COVID-19. Expressing one’s emotions is one of the most basic tools to process and leads to improved health . Whether you are leading an organization, a team, or are part of one, you can use this to benefit yourself and the people around you.
For individuals, simply asking somebody “how are you?” and actually mean it, listen and respond to it can be a huge relief . Many of us don’t actually answer the question “how are you?” but rather reply habitually with “fine, and you?”, even if “fine” is not accurate at all. Sometimes, all it takes is sticking with it and clarifying, “no, I really mean it; how are you?” to get a sincere answer.
For organizations, creating some kind of safe space as described by Brené Brown , Simon Sinek [16,20] and others will do. I’m happy that “psychological safety” has even become a bit of a buzzword. For me, creating a safe space has a lot to do with allowing, accepting and welcoming emotions at work. Allow people to be their whole self , invite conversations that require some courage, navigate conflict in a non-egoistic way. Take some time to have these conversations. It’ll pay off in the long term.
To start with this, seek out individual conversations to check in with everybody. Then, you can also start having the same kind of conversations in groups. Important rules are listening, not jumping in and trying to fix, and asking permission before asking somebody a personal question.
Check out these rules and guidelines of Emerging Men, a men’s group that is specially designed to be a safe space and allow people to share vulnerably.
3: Meaningful Meetings
Unfortunately, many organizations' meetings kind of miss their point and become unproductive or even utterly useless and a waste of energy, time, and money [21, 22]. For the meetings that are, in fact, required and useful, I'd like to suggest two practices that bring a bit more lightness, joy, and a more profound feeling of connection to the participants.
In times of stress, the body's movement helps because it releases tension [23, 24] (you can observe that in many wild animals as well). Stand up (be it in person or digitally), and shake your body. Hopping, rotating the torso, shaking out the arms and legs, and making any kind of silly movement you feel drawn to. Yawning, jumping from side to side, and twisting your upper body and all other kinds of movements are welcome.
At my Emerging Men group, we end every session with something many people (especially men) don't do enough: appreciation. Appreciation has become a hot topic in workplace health promotion research. In the 2016 Work and Well-Being Survey, the American Psychological Association  highlighted the relationship between being appreciated at work and wellbeing.
I suggest you take a couple of minutes to give space for public appreciation at the end of every meeting. This appreciation doesn't necessarily have to be work-related nor directed towards any of the other people present. Every participant is simply invited to share one thing they are appreciative, grateful or thankful for. Fun fact; even if somebody doesn't share anything themselves (forcing to appreciate doesn't work!), they'll likely have a boost in wellbeing just by listening to others share appreciation.
Defining or redefining your purpose as a company, creating a safe space at work and making meetings more meaningful can drastically influence how your employees feel at work, how they interact, and ultimately how healthy they are. Even though health was the focus of this article, implementing the described practices also helps increase more traditional business metrics [16, 19].
I hope you found this article valuable. If you'd like to be supported in any of the described practices or want to read more about my insights, connect with me on LinkedIn, visit my website or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jorim Holtey-Weber, Guest Writer Brainz Magazine
Jorim is a coach, psychologist, and university lecturer. He coaches leaders and businesses on communication, leadership, and mental health. He's routinely invited to contribute to conferences and mentors at various startup accelerators. Believing that role modeling is one of the most powerful ways to transmit knowledge, he makes sure to walk his talk.
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