Recognising and managing burnout inducing stress

The discourse around workplace burnout has been increased in recent years as awareness of the damaging mental health effects of long-term, chronic, inefficiently managed stress at work has increased. Especially throughout the pandemic, when people have been working longer hours and dealing with the pressures of remote working and lockdown, incidences of people completely burning out and needing to take time off work have been prevalent. This has especially problematic among healthcare workers, with mental health related absences reported to have cost the NHS £805 million from January 2020 to June 2021.

Burnout can be avoided, but only when people are given the tools to recognise and manage the signs of stress that can amount to burnout when left alone for too long. As with other forms of stress outside of work, human psychology reacts to workplace stress in three key evolutionary displays: fight, freeze and flight.

Recognising signs of stress

Those who have a fight response to stress may experience increased irritability and anger. This can be accompanied by urges to lash out or smash something, a frequently raised voice and a tendency to be accusatory towards others. This response can also manifest physically as a tight jaw or shoulders, neck pain, high blood pressure, clenched fists and a red face.

The freeze response is expressed as an inability to concentrate, brain fog, the mind freezing or locking up and becoming very forgetful. Those experiencing a freeze response may find themselves avoiding certain situations, distancing or isolating themselves from others and becoming demotivated both at work and in life.

The flight response can cause people experiencing stress to become restless, fidgety and unable to sleep. They may also feel trapped and excessively or constantly worried. The physical manifestation of the flight response is anxiety-like symptoms, such as a tight chest, affected breathing, stomach pains and excess sweating.

Managing stress

If you notice signs of stress that are detrimental to work or your daily life, it is crucial to manage them as quickly as possible. Allowing stresses to persist on a long-term basis will lead to burnout when the brain cannot function properly anymore.

Slow the body down

Stress makes your brain and body operate at high speed and one of the first steps that need to be taken is using tools to slow it down. Guided meditation and focused breathing are effective ways to achieve this through stimulation of the diaphragm and vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve runs through the diaphragm muscle and as the muscle moves around the nerve in deep breathing exercises, a parasympathetic response, the nervous system’s relaxed state, is triggered. In addition, the heartbeat naturally slows during deep breathing as the body works to ensure that lungs are properly filled with oxygen and that excessive pressure in the arteries is avoided.

Slowing the body down will limit the physical responses to stress triggered by the evolutionary fight or flight mechanisms. Wrkit’s breathe and listen sections on the POWR platform are excellent places to start in slowing the body down and manage stress. Guided meditation sessions are also available to help refocus both body and mind.

Sleep hygiene

Focusing on your sleep hygiene plan to ensure you are sleeping well for enough time will help to regulate stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, in the body.

Establish a consistent bedtime routine so your body and brain know to start winding down for the night, try and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, avoid exercising, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evenings and limit blue light exposure, such as from phones, for an hour before going to sleep.

Good sleep hygiene helps to keep cortisol and adrenaline fluctuations in a normal rhythm, improving mood, lowering stress and generally supporting mental wellbeing.

Exercise and movement

Exercising boosts the production of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters – endorphins. Any aerobic exercise will pump endorphins through the body, reducing stress. In addition, activity leads to positive physical effects, such as improving cardiovascular, digestive and immune health and can protect the body from the negative physical fight or flight responses.

In addition to exercise, daily pick me ups such as spending 10 minutes in a park or the garden can be beneficial in minimising stress. Fresh air and greenery are instant mood boosters that do not require putting time aside for a long, strenuous workout.

Personal reflections

Journalling and reflecting are effective ways to manage stress as they encourage people to scrutinise the causes and meaning of stress. It is a good technique to come to terms with and gain a deeper understanding of stress by putting it into writing and then working to improve the root causes of negative feelings.

Reflecting can give people the tools to mindfully treat triggers of stress, rather than simply managing the symptoms of the stress. This will reduce overall stress as problems are solved and removed.

To find out more about how businesses can help employees avoid burnout by effectively identifying and managing stress, request a POWR demo at https://wrkit.com/contact/request-a-demo.

The right to disconnect in a remote working world

New research from Autonomy thinktank has highlighted an ‘epidemic of hidden overtime’ as a result of employees working increasing hours at home. With the recent influx of companies moving to permanent remote working or hybrid working approaches, there is an evident need for the boundaries between work and home life to be more clearly defined to protect employees’ wellbeing.

The pandemic has started to instil a working environment with an increasing and unhealthy expectation for people to always be available and never wholly disconnected from work. However, this assumption can have damaging impacts on mental health, as employees are more likely to feel overwhelmed with stress if they think that they can’t take a break. As a result, there are calls for ‘right to disconnect’ laws in the UK to prevent overworking and unpaid labour.

What is the right to disconnect?

Generally, the right to disconnect means that employees do not have to engage with or reply to work-related communications, such as emails and calls, and can turn off work devices outside of working hours.

 In some countries, this is a legal right and in others, it is advisory. As ‘normal’ working hours differ across varying industries it may be beneficial for some workers to work outside of these hours and have time to disconnect at alternative times in the day.

Where is it implemented?

France is considered a pioneer in this area, leading the way in implementing laws that grant the right to disconnect. It is worked out on an individual basis to create charters that meet the needs of different businesses so companies can put their own regulations in place to determine when staff are not supposed to be disconnected.

Most recently, in April this year, Ireland granted employees the right to disconnect under a Code of Practice. Encompassed in the code is the right for employees to not have to engage in work-related matters after hours and the right not to be penalised for doing so. Additionally, workers must universally respect the right for others to disconnect.

Similar legislation has also been introduced across Europe, in countries such as Italy and Spain but there is currently no legislation in the pipeline for the UK. 

How is it beneficial?

Allowing employees time to really disconnect is beneficial for mental wellbeing and productivity and reduces the chance of staff burnout. In an increasingly remote business world, it’s fundamental to maintain a distinction between work and life.

Overall staff morale and enthusiasm is likely to dwindle if employees feel overworked and lacking in rest, which can have negative repercussions for employee retention and company reputation. The right to disconnect enables employees not to feel guilty about not responding after hours and allows for a better overall work/life balance.

How can disconnecting be encouraged?

Despite the fact that the UK government currently does not intend to implement right to disconnect legislation, there are several actions that employers can take to tackle overworking.

It should be clearly communicated to employees that they won’t be penalised for not working beyond their contracted hours and companies should encourage their staff not to respond to or send work-related communications outside of those hours. Employees should be able to take adequate holiday and have at least one rest break in the day where they can step away from their desk. Employers also have a duty to check in on staff regularly to ensure their wellbeing is not adversely affected by work.

The benefits of disconnecting cannot be underestimated, for employers and employees alike, and the increasing recognition of this is encouraging moving forward. With remote working looking like it’s set to stay, avoiding staff burnout and setting boundaries is more important than ever.

Prevention over cure: Avoiding mental health problems as employees readjust

After more than a year of lockdown restrictions, it is no surprise that many people are raring to get back to normal life again, but that is not the case for everyone. As people start to use workplaces more often, perhaps as before or perhaps now adopting a hybrid model, employers need to keep in mind that their employees will be going through another huge life adjustment, and this may be taxing on mental health.

By acknowledging the extra pressures, including health-related anxiety, that will be on employees as they transition back to life in the workplace, employers must be supportive and stay one step ahead to prevent more serious mental health issues from arising down the line.

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, prevention is always favourable over cure. As problems progress, they get more complicated to resolve, more challenging for the person experiencing them and can lead to an impact on the business if a person needs to take time off as a result.

With this in mind, here are some steps employers can take to ensure they are taking care of their employees’ mental wellbeing in the return to the office.

Provide suitable self-care resources

A simple way to ensure staff are taking care of their own mental wellbeing is providing or signposting to resources such as self-help activities, meditation, or resilience training. These give employees mechanisms to help themselves at the first hint of mental turmoil and resources such as resilience training may prevent those feelings from arising at all in the first place.

Wrkit’s Wellbeing product, POWR, is designed to empower workers to proactively manage their mental and physical health. It provides plans across life, mind, work, food, activity and sleep to offer holistic, preventative support for employees.

When used in conjunction with the Surveys product, which bypasses conscious bias to measure how people actually feel, the POWR platform becomes an incredibly useful tool as the surveys can pick up on issues that the person is not yet fully aware of.


These surveys can flag when it looks like someone might need professional support to get their wellbeing back on track, and access to these professionals is the next thing employers need to consider in the return to the workplace.

Mental health first aiders and professional care

Not all issues will be able to be resolved through self-help, so all businesses should have measures in place for when problems progress.

This could be in the form of colleagues who volunteer to train as mental health first aiders or giving employees access to professional counselling and therapy. If a problem has developed to the point of needing support from a professional, it is still important to get help as soon as possible.

Access to professional support should be proactively communicated so that employees do not have to ask a member of the HR team or a line manager as this could put people off seeking help. Being open about how employees can access help should they need it will begin to establish a company culture in which people are not ashamed or worried to admit that they are struggling, which is really important in overall employee wellbeing.

Creating an open and honest culture

By creating a culture in which mental health issues of all scales are normalised, employees will feel more comfortable turning to their colleagues for support. They will also feel like their company cares about them and wants them to get better, rather than feeling like it is something that they must hide for fear of judgment.

An atmosphere that accepts that a huge number of people face struggles with their mental wellbeing will empower people to get the help they need earlier on, once again supporting the idea that prevention is the best cure.

Take work-life balance inspiration from the pandemic

The pandemic has proved that, on the whole, people can be trusted to be productive when not in an office and when not necessarily working standard nine to five hours. Better work-life balance will improve overall employee wellness and engagement, boosting productivity and job satisfaction.

Employers should take inspiration from this and, when possible, allow employees to take control over their work-life balance by working flexible hours or from home if they want to.

These kinds of policies and measures tell employees that their employers are invested in their wellbeing and are there to support them when needed. Making people feel valued in their jobs and having outstanding support for when mental wellbeing does take a dip are both critical factors in improving employee wellness and should be central as people readjust to life back in the workplace.

Celebrating the athletes destigmatising mental health leave

Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the Olympic team gymnastics finals to focus on her mental health makes her the most recent in a spate of athletes dismantling the stigma around putting themselves and their mental wellbeing above their career.

During the tennis season, we saw Naomi Osaka drop out of the French Open because of the effect press conferences have on her wellbeing and Emma Raducanu withdraw from Wimbledon following breathing difficulties, possibly a symptom of an anxiety attack, during her match.

Although there has been some backlash, especially in the case of Biles and Osaka who have openly cited mental health issues, all three athletes have received a general outpouring of support and blown open the conversation around prioritising mental health over work.

Most of us are not on an international stage at work, but mental health issues can still affect anyone. It is time for mental wellbeing related sick leave to be destigmatised. The past year has been difficult for everyone and has highlighted the importance of employers being compassionate and understanding of issues surrounding mental wellbeing.

Everyone can learn from Osaka, Biles and Raducanu and the support that their sponsors and coaches have shown them. By accepting mental health problems and allowing employees to take time off as they would with a physical illness, employers can help employees rest and access the help that they need early on before matters deteriorate further.

As well as early intervention minimising the amount of time the employee may need to take off work, these actions will make them feel valued and cared for in a time of need, boosting job satisfaction and reinforcing that mental health problems are common and not something to feel ashamed of.

Elite athletes and regular employees all face pressure and expectations, and this can take a serious toll on mental health. We live in an era with a scientific understanding of mental health issues that proves that they are as valid as physical ailments. Going forwards, this needs to be reflected by employers all over the world as ensuring employee mental wellbeing is protected and understood is far more effective than forcing people to lie or work through it, and we should all be celebrating the athletes helping to promote this.

How Can Employers Help Staff Develop A Resilient Mindset?

Resilience at work has been a growing topic for the past few years as workplace stress levels continue to rise and present a myriad of problems for businesses and individuals. Training in resilience is an increasingly popular aspect of employee development to empower employees to overcome work stress, persevere in the face of adversity and be able to bounce back.

Although resilience training is beneficial for employee wellbeing and mental health, businesses should really be focusing on tackling the root cause of stress, which often lies in how we work. A major contributing factor to burnout is the perception that long working days equal productive working days, which has only been amplified while workforces are at home and employees feel added pressure to prove they are present.

Working hours that extend into the evenings and weekends, the time which should be dedicated to unwinding, will inevitably lead to burnout, no matter how resilient the person is.

Despite this, resilience training should undoubtedly be part of companies’ mixed wellness offerings. Employers can help employees develop resilience skills through the practice of regular time out, unhooking from tech at times, creating space between meetings and allowing staff to take time during the day to spend on self-focus – perhaps going for a walk or having some quiet time to unwind.

Employees can take an active part in developing their own resilient mindsets by discussing what is working well and driving optimisation with senior members of staff and by reframing challenging situations to look like a learning opportunity, and a way to grow and develop as an individual and as a business.

This “growth mindset” should be central in resilience training and can be encouraged through regular catch up and discussion sessions, and clarity around future plans will help to create more security. On the other hand, lack of dialogue and planning will lead to fixed mindsets within the business.

Beyond resilience training, employers should support their employees in achieving a sustainable work-life balance through exploring processes which will alleviate the intensity of work and reduce employee stress, which is often the root of workplace stress and mental health issues. This could include reviewing email policies and ensuring communication from managers is limited, if not completely eradicated, outside of working hours so leaders are demonstrating a healthy work and life balance.

Employers can also look at hybrid home working models to give staff greater control of their work schedule and having mental health first aiders available in the case that workers need further care and advice.

Wrkit specialises in the creation of better, healthier working environments. To speak to an Engagement Specialist about alleviating workplace stress and burnout and to explore options for resilience training, visit www.wrkit.com.

Stress awareness with others

Now many weeks into lockdown, most of us are adapting well to the new way of working and being social in more creative ways. It is without doubt that for everyone it has been a struggle at times and although the lockdown parameters will be loosening over the next month, it is still a very challenging time for staff, managers, colleagues, parents, families and children.

COVID-19 is a truly global experience with so many countries clearly affected and having to adapt as best they can. Each household has its own unique set of challenges with individuals self-isolating on their own, single parents working and trying their best to manage alone, large families having both parents working and juggling childcare with the disappearance of supports like school or day care and having to try and work and educate at the same time. There are also many people isolating by themselves and at times challenged by the loneliness and repetitiveness of each day.

The stress and strain on everyone is real and is being felt in all households throughout the country. So, it is extremely important to be mindful when connecting with colleagues and staff working from home, to be conscious and alert to some of what is happening for them emotionally, psychologically, and physically.

After the first two weeks of lockdown in the UK, a working from home survey produced these results:
– 60% exercising less
– 60% more fatigued
– 64% acknowledge that worry is affecting sleep
– 41% health concerns for family

Now after 4-6 weeks in, survey stats are showing that:

  • 44% of people currently working from home find they are working longer hours and finding it hard to switch off from work
  • 51% of employees find that they are interrupted during their working day by family members and that multiple roles placed on parents is very challenging  
  • 79% of employees surveyed are missing their usual working environments
  • 89% say missing the socialising with work colleagues ranked as the main reason for this

Spotting employees who are struggling or stressed

*10 Signs an employee may be suffering from stress and anxiety during COVID-19

1. Late to meetings, taking more time off work than usual or general regular lack of communication

2. Greater obvious use of substances such as alcohol, tobacco

3. Increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity

4. Deteriorating personal or work relationships, as experienced directly or indicated by others

5. More ‘emotional’, moody or over-reactive to what others say

6. Acting differently or unusually, that is out of the norm for them, or not being their usual self

7. Changing of eating or sleep patterns and personal appearance such as visible hygiene indicators – consistently not caring so much about appearance

8. Physical reactions such as sweating, fast paced breathing, very nervous, talking anxiously most of the time

9. Feeling continually low, depressed, and focusing on negatives, preoccupied with Covid 19

10. Overly tired and fatigued

What can you do?

If you are worried or concerned about someone’s health and wellbeing, or have received feedback from others who are concerned, the first thing to do is arrange some time to talk with the person one to one, and in the most private and confidential setting as possible. Let them know that you are connecting with them to talk about how they are finding working from home during this challenging time.

Explore what is happening for them and specific areas they are struggling with.

Check in on their wellbeing by asking about their general daily routine and if they are making time to connect with others regularly and getting out to do some exercise.

If you have some concerns, discuss with the person what your concerns are specifically.

Let them know that you are there to help support them and explore ways of doing this. Ask them how you can best help and if they are struggling to come up with ideas, suggest somethings you can do based on the areas that were discussed. Agree a plan and offer various supports available in your organisation such as EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) and ensure you agree to meet again soon after. Agree regular ongoing support meetings for a while, to see positive change occurring.

*Ref: Hughes, R., (2013) 10 Signs an employee may be suffering from stress and anxiety, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) – adapted from.

Building the healthy daily habits for Wellness Success

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in various online and mobile wellness apps. The main areas of focus being on measuring sleep, promoting meditation, engaging in physical exercises such as steps, running or cycling, mood monitoring, an increased awareness of nutritional intake and measuring the effects of positive psychology on thinking and on mood.

Why is this?

Research now shows that the regular practise of a variety of healthy habits can have a significant impact on increasing physical health and psychological wellbeing. Findings show that one of the keys to this is completing some focused wellbeing actives in a manageable and integrated way. The message here is: Little and often.

Various apps such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer have been created to attend to many of these areas, as has our employee wellbeing tool POWR – Positive Occupational Wellness Resources which has taken it one step further. Not only does POWR measure overall health and wellbeing, but it provides unique personalised health plans to help easily enhance a person’s overall wellbeing and education. Sitting within POWR are over 420 clinical plans designed to help staff engage with their wellbeing, with built in push technology to provide some much-needed encouragement in achieving greater results. POWR plans target the 6 keys areas of wellbeing – mind, life, work, sleep, active and food; with plans added each month, alongside a huge number of new blogs, articles and videos.

How to get the best from a wellness application?

With an app like POWR and others such as Calm, the design taps into several scientific research findings which shows that key areas to invest in and create healthy habits with are:

  • Regular meditation
  • Focused breathing
  • Mild exercise
  • Positive thinking

The analysis of various research shows that regular meditation significantly improves areas such as stress, anxiety, depression, quality of life, and emotion regulation (mood). Longer term it also improves other areas such as general positivity, self-generated positive emotions and can provide real benefits to close relationships and social outcomes.

Further research shows that regular mild exercise also has a significant effect on psychological wellbeing, while more moderate exercise has a significant effect on depression and anxiety, comparable with usual psychological care. Based on these findings and others, POWR brings this research all together and provides easy access to hundreds of clinical plans in each of the 6 targeted areas, making it accessible, available and easy to log into to work on wellbeing, every single day. With built in meditations, visual and auditory breathing exercises and a positive psychology reinforcing reflection tool, it really supports and promotes the benefits of these finds.

Take the challenge!

POWR is the ideal tool to help employees create healthy habits. To encourage this we have also created the POWR Formula for Success, which includes challenges in the areas of exercise, meditation, positive psychology journalling, wellness and stress relief articles and focused breathing challenges, to complement the 6 pathways in POWR which are always available for users to interact with, complete plans in and grow their wellbeing. This POWR challenge is designed to quickly get staff involved over a two weeks’ timeframe as a company challenge to help them feel healthier, socialise what they are doing, be more active and be more in tune with how they want to be.

Challenging COVID-19 – Eustress

This third article in our series of 6, looks at the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 restrictions. The article will focus on how these challenges are affecting employees physical and psychological health and most importantly how they can lean into difficult times using the Eustress mindset.

As the weeks roll on and restrictions continue in our battle with COVID-19, this is the time that staff will begin feeling some of the negative side effects of spending so much time cooped up at home. They will naturally be getting more frustrated or anxious at the situation and unfortunately more irritated with each other because of what is going on. Their sleep will start to be affected as their routines are shifting, as they are not required to get up at the same time as they used to when they were traveling to work, or school drop off. A new routine will be settling in which requires them to perform a few other extra commitments such as extra child minding, schooling, cooking and cleaning and an extra effort to be committed to exercise.

Our bodies love routine and structure, so the shift in adapting to this new routine will be causing some tension psychologically, emotionally and even physically with tiredness, broken sleep and sometimes skin irritations like eczema flaring up. 

Now is a good time to invest in Eustress!

Eustress stems from the ancient Greek word ‘eu’ meaning well or good stress. Unlike common everyday stress, and unlike distress, Eustress is very good for us. The best way to think of Eustress is to imagine it as the feeling we get when we focus on something we enjoy doing, over an extended period of time. A hobby or project that we invest time and energy into, not for anyone else but because we want to do something for ourselves, something new, where the challenge is reward enough. Eustress actions are personal challenges we set ourselves that are not too easy but are ultimately rewarding.

These activities bring a healthy distraction from what is going on in our world at any time. Allowing us to commit and focus our mind and bodies in a very productive, engaging way which will ultimately provide healthy results.

Examples of Eustress include learning to:

  • Sing, draw or paint
  • Speak another language
  • Author a short story or book
  • Play an instrument
  • Code
  • Create a website or understand graphic design
  • Clothes design and creation
  • Practice calligraphy
  • Understand more about the cosmos
  • Take a course in DIY
  • Complete a professional course of interest

The Eustress mindset is about committing to something that requires an ongoing regular focus, leading to the success of achieving a larger goal. There are many Eustress activities that staff can sign up for and accomplish over the next number of months. One of the keys is for them to find an activity that has structure to it and could lead to a test. For example:

  • Find a competition that they can sign up for in the future e.g. a marathon, performance, test or exam 6 – 9 months away
  • Set a timeframe based on this deadline and work backwards, with weekly or daily sessions
  • Be creative and really commit to a challenge to create some personal pressure

Encourage them to enjoy these focused sessions as a break from the norm, so choosing something they are genuinely interested in is important. By applying their time and energy, employees will begin to feel better over the coming months as they progress their Eustress strategies.

To find out more about what is available check out the Wrkit learning section for ideas and courses staff can sign up for. POWR also provides hundreds of plans, articles, blogs and daily, weekly and monthly goal setting measures, including workplace challenges.

Consideration, Compassion, Connection and Commitment

Although a lot has been written about the mental health and wellbeing of employees and staff during these last unusual weeks, not an awful lot has been written about the major multitasking that all staff are now facing into. Due to the social isolation strategy most nations have adopted, there are many, many parents now working two jobs from home, with most of their normal supports no longer available.

Employees have not only had to adapt to a new working environment, they now must juggle these multiple roles and structures at once. With World Health Day this week, it is a very good time to pause and reflect on how well employees are managing and adapting to this shift in expectations and to show support and celebrate their resilience.

It is also very impressive how many company cultures have shone through by showing understanding and appreciation of the new challenges their people are facing. One influential organisation very early on communicated a simple message to their work force to help them prioritise their time and energy and it was ‘family first’.

As the weeks are blending into each other and a new norm is settling in and staff are making the best of the situation, it is helpful to look at some ongoing healthy approaches to adopt and keep in mind when connecting with staff remotely.

Consideration:

It is important when connecting with staff that a moment is taken to be mindful of what they are being asked to do each day and the time they now have to give to their other roles at home such as child minder, educator and home maker. It is good to ask them now and again how they are finding the juggling of demands and how you as their manager or colleague can help.

Compassion:

With a lot of energy and attention being diverted, it is important to show compassion for the situation teams now finds themselves in and it is likely that over time performance will drop as energy begins to wane due to the multiple demands. This will be most apparent for parents of multiple young children needing care, attention and structured time to learn and be engaged with.

Connection:

For all team members connection is vitally important at this time, not just to cover off business but to be social and have an outlet. This is vital for staff who are not with family and are isolating alone. For these staff it is very important to consider how in a short space of time they have lost a lot of daily personal connecting and energy from others.

Commitment:

There will be ongoing competing demands for employees’ time and energy now and over the next number of months. Staff may not be able to show the level of time commitment that they normally would be able to provide. In the long run, as per the aforementioned company message ‘family first’, managers who are showing consideration and compassion will ensure greater commitment from their employees when normal routines return, and we are back in the workplace once again.

Mental Skills for Mental Health – Goal Setting

This is the second in the series of posts focused on the continuing mental impact of the COVID-19 virus, which all businesses are now reacting to. One of the most challenging impacts has been how employees can best continue in their roles with the effect of social distancing and remote working. This blog and the next 4 in this series will focus on the mental health and wellbeing of staff and managers, as they navigate the impact of this temporary new way of working.

As a psychotherapist, leadership and mental skills coach with nearly three decades of experience, I have worked with hundreds of people and businesses facing into challenging and uncertain times. My early training was as an emergency service first responder and trainer, so I understand how a fast onset of unusual and unexpected changes can impact people emotionally and psychologically. In my first blog from this series I wrote about some things to be expected over the coming weeks. In this blog I will be looking at an essential skill for staff to focus on and one which managers and leaders can promote. This is the key skill of planning and goal setting, for personal health and wellbeing.

The mental skill of goal setting is often undervalued as it seems so straight forward and something that we already are good at. It is however a vital first step in driving wellness and ensuring our mental health stays healthy. It is also one of the first things that is challenged and undermined when we feel unwell, as our energy drops, and we begin to feel demotivated and disengaged.

In sports psychology, one of the key plans of action for an athlete is first and foremost to have a plan. Have a plan for when it gets tough, when athletes feel demotivated, when the situation feels overly pressurised and when focus begins to wander. A key element of preparation is to revert to focused goal setting – remembering their training, going back to basics, back to what they know and create a go-to plan that is ‘ready to go’ for when it gets tough. 

Goal setting is a skill we call on all the time, going through our daily routines – making breakfast, sticking to a timetable, working to deadlines. It is a skill we know well, and we mostly do it unconsciously, however what many people are not aware of are what are known as ‘process goals’.

Process goals are particularly good to have for when times are tough, when people are distressed and when there is a lot of uncertainty. Process goals help bring what feels out of control, back into control – starting with ourselves and our control over how we think, how we feel and how we can influence the inherent energy of our body. We use process goals to feel more confident and clear headed. Examples of ways to do this, are grounding and centring which are often referred to as ‘anchoring’ techniques. These techniques anchor the person to something they know works for them; gaining some control over the situation and helping them feel better, quickly. 

At the moment staff and colleagues are feeling various levels of uncertainty, which is a natural reaction and not one to be overly concerned about. Everyone is feeling it and as leaders it is something we should be empathising with. Here we can encourage staff to goal set in order to maintain, where possible, the same working routine, as they would if COVID-19 didn’t exist. This will help normalise what is going on and help foster engagement and daily structure. Encourage the same starting time, finishing time and usual breaks as well as suggesting some extra structured time each day to support others, such as children and partners working from home also. Acknowledging that this is a team effort and we all need to set some goals to help with daily household routines, childcare and exercise.

Regarding work processes, look at any impending deadlines and goal set by negotiating new timelines; realistically integrating the new COVID-19 factors. Encourage staff to goal set some wellbeing strategies, by inviting them to explore what has worked before and reminding them to keep practicing these regularly. Check in with them to see what weekly goals they are setting – work related and wellbeing related, to help ensure they do not take on too much and invite them to create some goals if they are lacking some ion certain areas.

Explain ‘process goal’ setting and how it can be achieved by with various breathing techniques, short meditations or having a go-to set of encouraging and reassuring words or phrases. This is a good strategy for staff to start working on straight away. Talk openly about how at times it will be tough and it will feel scary or frustrating over the coming months; start to plan now for these times with some process goals strategies. Give them some examples of process goals – such as thinking about something they do that helps them feel better in the moment, to calm and sooth themselves. Avoiding negative and worrisome future predicting and instead focusing on constructive here and now planning immediate next steps planning.

Remind them that these are the same mental skills that all top athletes and military personnel practise to perform well and to manage their own wellbeing under major pressure. Reassure them that these techniques work, they are easy to practise, and they achieve results. All of this starts with the simple ability to goal set and to keep on goal setting – each day, especially when it gets tough.