COVID-19 delivered a massive shock, as it shuttered businesses, cancelled social outings and generally turned lives upside down. But Kim Seeling Smith, Founder and CEO of Ignite Global Pty Ltd, retained her equanimity throughout the crisis — even as her business was inundated with help-seeking calls from clients. DENISE CULLEN speaks with Seeling Smith, who reveals how managers can ensure a mentally healthy workplace through a crisis.
Having worked with thousands of organisations through Black Monday in 1987, the dot.com bust in 2000, 9/11 in 2001 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Kim Seeling Smith said there are proven strategies for individuals and organisations to work through the fallout. “It all feels new and different right now but there is a predictable pattern to these things,” she said.
Developing a deeper understanding about the different stages of crises could help individuals better manage the effects upon their mental health and the mental health of their team — which, early studies suggest, could be profound. For example, a Monash University study launched to track the mental health effects of the pandemic on 1200 Australians showed most participants had mild levels of anxiety and depression, while about 30% showed moderate to high levels.
Start with security
The ‘security’ phase of the current crisis commenced in mid-March and stretched from around two to six weeks. As people sought to discern the form, dimensions and face of the coronavirus (COVID-19), organisations were forced to realise that business as usual was “untenable for the foreseeable future”, Seeling Smith said. The primary task facing managers and human resources practitioners at the start of any economic shock was ensuring that employees were safe.
This involved obvious measures such as establishing working from home arrangements, but also keeping communication clear and consistent. “You don’t want too many voices in the employee’s head,” Seeling Smith explained. “Figure out who is going to be your main communication point and then, before any message is released, all leaders who are responsible for that message should ensure they’re on the same page.”
Employees would demonstrate varying levels of productivity and emotional fitness, but managers needed to avoid inadvertently instilling fear. “The message that a lot of managers were giving was, ‘Nose to the grindstone, work your guts out, because otherwise the business may have to make you redundant’,” she said. Fear floods brains with the stress hormone cortisol, which “will make you dumber, weaker, less creative and less solutions oriented because of the effect it has on the brain”, Seeling Smith said.
She has recommended tweaking this message to, “Let’s all work together, let’s not let this virus beat us”. “That releases dopamine … which makes you smarter, stronger and more able to handle changing conditions as well as able to see alternatives (which is) exactly what we want from a workforce at this time,” she said.
Survival at stake
The ‘survival’ phase of a crisis kicks in once people begin to feel safe, and could last months, yet the need for managers to support the mental health and wellbeing of themselves and their team needs to continue. Keeping staff emotionally fit and productive is crucial during this phase, Seeling Smith said. “People need a calm, steady hand during chaotic times,” she said. “Even if you don’t feel it, project calm to your team.”
Communication also remained crucial, with Seeling Smith suggesting organisations eliminate or at least reduce intra-office emails and text messages, instead talking to people via phone or video. “People are in a high state of anxiety and communication is far less likely to be misunderstood if it happens in a real-time conversation,” she said. “Video communication can also give a real sense of reassurance — especially if the staff member is isolated and working from home.”
Seeling Smith noted that clumsy interactions during this time could have lasting consequences, pointing to one organisation which made more than 10% of its staff redundant, announcing both the decision and executives’ reasoning for it via email. “As you can imagine the staff members were beside themselves and even the managers were dumbfounded because they didn’t see it coming,” she explained. “Within a week, one of the managers ended up quitting … and there were lots of reasons having nothing to do with this that this manager quit … but the timing was just very interesting.”
Videoconferencing also allows managers to better identify those who might be struggling amid working from home or other novel arrangements. Tell-tale signs included changes in behaviour — such as high performers suddenly missing deadlines or meetings, or usually forthcoming individuals ceasing to contribute during group chats. “If somebody’s not sharing their video on a videoconference, that can be a key indicator that somebody’s not doing so well,” Seeling Smith said. “You have to be vigilant — you have to work at those more subtle signs.”
The ‘pre-recovery’ phase is often overlooked, but is in fact the most critical of all stages between disruption and recovery, Seeling Smith said. “Many organisations and leaders skip this phase, thinking that the recovery will take care of itself,” she explained. However, those who do so could ultimately lose market share and staff to their competitors.
Missteps include failing to secure the right mix of staff capable of weathering future shocks, or making inappropriate or unsustainable ‘pivots’ towards temporary swings misinterpreted as long-term trends. “Organisations must track the ‘new normal’ as it begins to reveal itself and make their best guesses as to which trends will become a permanent part of (it),” Seeling Smith explained.
“If they guess incorrectly, they must be able to quickly shift and change again as the trend morphs into something else or disappears altogether.” While it is still too early to predict what the ‘new normal’ will look like, organisations and people who mended the cracks exposed during the initial weeks of the crisis would be best placed to enter a future which demanded greater agility, flexibility and resilience.
“A lot of companies gave lip service to it … but they didn’t really do the hard work to become those things, and now it’s becoming urgent,” she said.
Kim Seeling Smith will share these and other insights on effective work health and safety leadership at the NSCA Foundation’s inaugural Future of Work: People, Safety, Culture conference at Hilton Brisbane, 10–11 November 2020. More information, including how to register, is available at www.futureofworkconference.com.au.
Seeling Smith originally trained as an accountant with KPMG before moving into the management consulting division. “I loved learning how businesses operated — that was so much more exciting for me than accounting, but it still wasn’t what I really wanted to do,” she explained. She subsequently ‘fell’ into recruitment. This 15-year period sowed the seeds of her current business, Ignite Global Pty Ltd, after she learned that “so many people out there hated their jobs”.
“When I first started this company 11 years ago, I unpacked my observations from 5000 exit interviews and reverse engineered it so that I could help organisations provide environments for their people to thrive,” she explained. “That also made me passionate about helping people because … I recognised the difference between loving your job and hating your job.”
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