The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated a number of trends for our communities and businesses including working from home, shopping online and the overall rise of the digital economy.
It has also accelerated another, more concerning trend: the increased prevalence of people feeling stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns.
Concern about mental health and suicide had already been rising in recent years and since the pandemic was declared, support agencies around the globe have reported significant spikes in people seeking help. Here in Australia:
– beyondblue, an Australian non-profit specialising in depression, suicide and anxiety disorders, has reported 40% greater demand for their support service week-on-week in April 2020 compared to a couple of months prior to the pandemic.
– Lifeline, a non-profit Australian suicide prevention support agency, broke a record with 90,000 calls in March, up 34% on their usual call volumes and equal to one call every 30 seconds.
What this tells us is that during COVID-19, more than ever, we are all in it together when it comes to our mental wellbeing.
Mental health issues are an unwelcome and deeply concerning side effect of the pandemic, however there may be a silver lining. Read on to find out why.
7 key communication insights from the Ambulance Victoria case study
Ambulance Victoria’s work on mental health is a great example of strong leaders identifying an issue and acting decisively to address it, and this was led by CEO Tony Walker and Chair Ken Lay.
Tony Walker says he knew something had to be done when a National Coronial report (2015) found paramedics had a suicide rate that was four times the Victorian average and three times that of other emergency services personnel such as police and fire fighters.
Partner with the experts
If you want to create a mentally healthy workplace, particularly if there are identified issues among your employees, you should partner with mental health experts.
In a best-practice scenario, these experts – internal or external to your organisation – can help you assess and develop programs tailored specifically for your people and business.
Ambulance Victoria partnered with beyondblue, Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and Black Dog Institute to research the needs of its employees and develop its mental health and wellbeing strategy, and tailored training programs.
In the midst of the pandemic, the need to move quickly does not mean you have to go it alone. There are significant resources publicly available for business use from reputable organisations including the Heads Up initiative from beyondblue, coupled with new materials they’ve developed in response to COVID-19.
If you’re not a communication professional, you should also partner with is your in-house or external communication experts.
Stigma is a barrier and a symptom
Stigma can make symptoms worse for people with a mental health concern, exacerbating feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.
Stigma is also a significant barrier that stops people from speaking up about mental health concerns.
It’s one of the biggest things that communication needs to tackle – to ensure that people feel safe to get the help they need.
Stigma meant that many paramedics at Ambulance Victoria were reluctant to talk about mental health concerns. Fewer than half were comfortable to talk to a colleague and 60 per cent said they would talk to their manager.
This is where the widespread nature of the mental health impacts of the pandemic, though deeply concerning and not something anyone would wish for, may have a silver lining. Mental health has gone from being an issue for the few, to an issue for the many.
News feeds have filled with articles, governments are injecting new funding into mental health and many businesses are realising they need to do more to support their people’s mental wellbeing.
I hope we may look back on this as a time when mental health took a significant and necessary step into the mainstream conversation, considered no differently to physical health.
Mental health factors may not be obvious
When you think about the mental wellbeing of paramedics you could be forgiven for thinking the biggest risk they face is dealing with trauma on a daily basis.
That’s certainly a factor, but there are other, more administrative factors, that can also impact paramedic mental health.
This includes shift work and the impacts this can have on sleep and relationships, and unplanned overtime which can cause stress and family conflict due to paramedics missing important social occasions such as a child’s play or a birthday party.
Likewise, the mental health factors for your employees or stakeholders may not be obvious. This applies during normal times and during the pandemic.
How will you know what’s impacting your employees? Ask them.
You can survey people, hold focus groups, provide channels for people to give feedback. Armed with these insights you can target your attention to where it will achieve the most for your people.
Ambulance Victoria undertook a comprehensive psychosocial wellbeing survey of its staff to fully understand their current state of mental health and the drivers of mental health. They followed up with surveys to measure improvements and ongoing needs.
Integrate communication from the outset
Everything in life and work is better with effective communication and when it comes to a mentally healthy workplace, you can’t be successful without it.
Combatting stigma takes many things, such as:
- Demonstrating organisational commitment.
- Visible leadership.
- Promoting open conversation at all levels of the organisation.
- Fostering mindsets and behaviours to support a mentally healthy culture.
- Education and training.
- Partnerships with experts and working closely key groups such as unions and family members.
These are all areas where communication plays a key role and should be integrated when the business is developing its strategy, not just when it comes time to implement it.
I was fortunate to help Ambulance Victoria with writing their Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2016-2019, as well as developing the communication strategy to support it. Key aspects of the communications strategy were written into the organisational strategy – one of the four strategic objectives was mental health promotion at all levels of the organisation – so the commitment to communication was beyond question.
However, this should not be purely a communication exercise. Your communication must be backed by real organisational commitment and meaningful mental health initiatives and supports.
This is particularly important if your workforce has identified mental health challenges – and that will be the case for more workplaces than usual during the pandemic.
Avoid the temptation to launch and leave
If stigma was easy to fix, we would have already addressed it as a society.
It takes real commitment, teamwork and sustained effort to achieve meaningful and lasting change of any kind, and particularly in reducing stigma and fostering better mental health.
At Ambulance Victoria, the mental health strategy set out an initial three-year framework and they’ve built on that by continuing to review their progress.
After the first year, the investment had already made a significant difference. Paramedics were more willing to talk to someone:
- Fewer than a third would not speak to a colleague, down from 50 per cent or more.
- A quarter of them would not speak to their manager, down from 40 per cent.
They were also empowered to take care of themselves and others:
- 90 per cent could identify the warning signs of a mental health issue and were familiar with self care strategies, up from fewer than 50 per cent.
- 91 per cent were familiar with available treatments and supports, up from 60 per cent.
Authentic storytelling works, but it’s not easy
Storytelling is one of our most powerful tools, however it may take some time and authentic leadership to get it going when dealing with mental health. If you can’t get it going with voices from inside your organisation, think about bringing in voices from outside.
When we first started at Ambulance Victoria, we recognised that stigma would not make it possible to get paramedics talking about their own mental health. Instead, I interviewed family members of paramedics – a wife, a mother and a husband – on camera and their comments were moving and powerful.
When we launched the strategy, we also launched a Mental Health Pledge – and Ambulance Victoria Chair Ken Lay and CEO Tony Walker, and beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman were the first to take it. It was a really safe way to start the conversation by asking people to make commitments about what they would do differently for themselves or their team.
A couple of years on from the launch, one of the biggest symbols of success was finding paramedics now willing to tell their own story. You can read about one paramedic, and more about the Ambulance Victoria case study, in the Ambulance Today magazine.
You can’t help others, if you don’t look after yourself
This insight turns the spotlight back onto the communication profession. Are we doing enough to look after our own people?
You can’t help others, if you don’t look after yourself
For paramedics, as a caring profession, we coined the phrase: ‘If we don’t care for ourselves, we can’t care for others.’
The same sentiment, reframed as helping others, applies for communication professionals because we often find ourselves serving as a helping profession.
There’s nothing wrong with being motivated to help – it’s something I love about our profession – provided it’s based on a clear strategy. If our focus is on tactics ahead of strategy, communication ends up doing a lot of reactive ‘stuff’ in response to requests from others which may not achieve our objectives, and which can cause real workload pressures during a crisis.
I’ve previously written about the need for communication practitioners to practice self care, including links to available data in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Greater insight into the factors impacting our mental health will help us take better care of ourselves and our colleagues. I’m looking forward to sharing more information about proposed Asia Pacific communication profession research in collaboration with Deakin University.
Mental Health Insights and Checklist
To help get you started with creating a mentally healthy workplace, we’ve put together a Mental Health Insights Checklist you can download free.
A final point: give it heart
Whatever initiatives you roll out and communicate, make sure you give them plenty of heart.
We need more heart in business communication and that starts with recognising our employees as human beings first.
Looking after their health and wellbeing is not only the right thing to do, it will repay itself in loyalty, productivity and better business outcomes.
Who wouldn’t heart that?