The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on our lives. Whilst many of us have enjoyed new opportunities for spending increased time at home under a slower, more sedentary approach to life, others amongst us have been facing challenges that are stressful, overwhelming and have stirred up strong emotions.
We’ve understood the need for social distancing, yet it’s left us feeling isolated, lonely and unable to properly unwind from the ongoing demands of working life.
To mark the start of Stress Awareness Month 2021, Pick Everard‘s Elizabeth Hardwick-Smith discusses the impact that stress can have on someone and the role an employer can play in supporting their staff during periods of stress.
The figures speak for themselves. The Mental Health Foundation found in their latest research that 74% of UK adults in the past year have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of stress. This is supported by recent research undertaken by The Stress Management Society who reported 65% of people in the UK have felt more stressed since the Covid-19 restrictions began in March 2020. They found the three causes of concern to be feelings of disconnection, uncertainty and a worrying loss of control. This in turn has helped shape the theme of 2021’s stress awareness month – ‘Regaining Connectivity, Certainty and Control’ and the Society’s 30 day challenge Stress Awareness Month 2021 – The Stress Management Society
The construction industry needs this proactive ‘call to action’ no less than any other. In 2019 the CITB reported that the industry was already one of the most stressful sectors to work in, with more than 4 in 5 construction workers saying they felt stressed at least some of the time during a typical week. The industry remains under intense stress with the added pressures of Covid-19. The demands of caring for family, job uncertainty, fluctuating workloads and the additional physical challenges of staying safe at work, have heightened what was already a growing mental health crisis within the industry.
Stress is the body’s natural response to pressure, producing physical and emotional responses. Many of us often do not realise we are under stress until it has started to become too much and consumes us. Often, we may have a feeling of being under pressure but ‘coping’ and we can sustain this for some time since it is not adversely affecting us. Indeed, pressure or mild stress may actually bring positive results through increased focus, performance and productively. But there is a fine line between being able to cope at this level, to then hitting a tipping point of severe stress or burn out.
Stress can negatively affect our mental, physical and emotional health, our quality of life and create interpersonal and performance issues. Even positive life changes such as a new work opportunity or new house, can produce stress. At its worst, stress can be debilitating, and since it is a normal part of human existence — nobody is immune to it.
The role of employer support
Employers have a crucial role in being an anchor and support for staff during periods of stress. At Pick Everard, we recognised early into the Covid-19 period, the importance of arming ourselves with knowledge so that we could more readily recognise when stress was rearing its head in ourselves and others. In turn, we moved quickly to equip our staff and line managers with the tools they needed to address it – providing guidance and training in how to spot changes in our colleagues, to enable access to personal resilience toolkits, and to take quick action to talk to and sign-post colleagues before mild stress issues became severe ones.
We all experience stress differently in different situations so one of the challenges we faced as an organisation was being able to spot signs of stress in others during a uniquely demanding period, but also whilst we have all been remote from each other. We were much more reliant than usual on staff being able to notice changes in themselves. Pick Everard worked hard to ensure multiple routes were provided for staff to speak up about the challenges they were facing – be that through line manager ones to ones, surveys, increased access to Mental Health First Aiders or our EAP.
We’ve also ran regular broadcasts to stay connected to staff, enhanced the information available on our intranet, implemented a ‘Call a Colleague’ initiative and taken part in Pagabo’s industry-wide study with Moodbeam one.
Breaking down the stigma
Covid-19 has turbo-charged important work in breaking down the stigma of mental health. My own commitment to this movement has extended beyond my role at Pick Everard to my work as a Trustee of the Pagabo Foundation.
Established to combat issues surrounding mental health in the construction industry, The Pagabo Foundation has continued to support the drive for an important change across the industry throughout Covid-19. It’s chief aims are to normalise conversations about mental wellbeing, to raise the profile of the unique struggles in the industry and to sign post those in need to expert advice.
Partnering with Mates in Mind, The Foundation acted quickly by releasing guidance during lockdown 1.0 on how to spot the signs that our mental health may be suffering. Spotting the signs your mental health might be suffering (pagabo.co.uk). This was further supported by two videos created in Partnership with Mates in Mind, aimed at providing practical advice for those who may be struggling with loneliness or need help managing their mental health in uncertain times. Pagabo and Sypro come together to support Mates in Mind
To mark world mental health day (2020), a Pagabo Building Blocks podcast special was released. The reasons behind the foundation and it’s vital role were discussed, as well as our experiences of mental health challenges across the industry and how the pressures can affect anyone, at any level. In response, as Trustees we’ve met regularly, working with commitment and compassion to build some fantastic plans for 2021 and beyond.
Hope and new horizons
We’re now starting to see the green shoots of hope appearing for the control of Covid-19 and the curiosity surrounding the ‘future of work’. We recognise, however, that it will be sometime before we fully understand the devastating impact this period has had on our collective mental health. Our proactive efforts as individuals, employers and as a charity will need to continue long beyond Covid-19. Stress Awareness Month presents the perfect opportunity to re-energise and re-focus on the need to look after ourselves more, to keep talking about stress and its effects and to share our coping mechanisms. It is only through these ongoing efforts that we can drive real change and support greater resilience for our collective future across the industry.
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