When change gets the better of us

Published 27 October 2020

So what if you suspect a co-worker is not really coping?

Here, rural clinical psychologist and director of the University of New England (UNE) Psychology Clinic, Dr Amanda Jefferys gives a refresher on mental health first aid at work.

"Organisational change of the kind that COVID-19 has prompted not only creates a burdensome workload but also mental stress," Dr Jefferys says.

"It can exacerbate existing or underlying mental health conditions or lead to very capable people feeling overwhelmed.

“Sometimes those people are not very good at asking for help, because they don't wish to be seen as the one who is not managing.

"The confidentiality and privacy elements of organisational change can also mean that staff are quite protective of their personal information or secretive right now.

“They may be considering their future and perhaps feeling some survivor guilt because they are planning to leave valued work colleagues who will have to pick up more of the workload.

"A workplace can easily become toxic if this is not managed well. Thinking about how we can all help foster workplace wellness is very important."

So how can we support one another and our teams through organisational upheaval? Dr Jefferys offers some practical advice.

Be aware and establish authentic and respectful lines of communication

"There are a few early signs when people are beginning to struggle or feel overwhelmed," Dr Jefferys says. "They might be having difficulty focusing, be less enthusiastic and productive, and you may notice that it's hard for them to be present.

"Asking ‘RUOK?’ is a nice basic, early-stage question, but it is irresponsible and ineffective unless you know how to respond when the person replies 'No'."

Research what help is available

"Most larger organisations have free counselling services or employee assistance programs, where staff can access trained clinicians, and Human Resources staff should be only too happy to help during these times of organisational change," Dr Jefferys says.

"However, recommending the individual see their GP first is advisable. Currently, due to COVID-19, GPs are offering referrals for up to 20 health-care sessions under a health-care plan.

"Remember that, as important as the welfare of our work colleagues is, we are all in a workplace to work. If a person's issue is overwhelming, it may not be appropriate for them to lean on work colleagues."

Organise a private conversation

"If we discover that someone is, in fact, not OK, then we need to be prepared to invest some time and energy in offering guidance and support," Dr Jefferys says. "It starts with having an authentic conversation.

"People feel very vulnerable when they are disclosing that they are not OK, but you don't need to know all their personal details to offer kindness and support.

“You can start by saying: 'I am concerned about you; this is what I have been noticing that makes me worried for you' and then ask: ‘How can we help you to get through this?'.

“Open-ended questions help to progress the conversation."

Follow up 

After making some recommendations for the kind of support available to the individual, it's important to check in on them down the track.

"At different stages during an organisational change process, different people will be pushing the barrow to help others," Dr Jefferys says.

"Hopefully, with good leadership, you will have someone at the helm, guiding that process.

“However, the person you have supported will benefit from a simple check in from time to time. This demonstrates their health is important and they are valued by the staff and broader organisation."

Recognise the opportunity for your own personal growth

"Learning how to support ourselves and one another can be an important opportunity for personal growth," Dr Jefferys says.

“It can remind us of the importance of having a good routine, developing interests that keep us well outside work, staying organised, looking after our physical health, and surrounding ourselves as much as possible with positive people.Amanda Jeffreys portrait

"Reflecting on what we've been able to do to support another can also give us perspective. It reminds us that we are all on a mental health spectrum and that everyone is vulnerable at different times; that we can all feel overworked, overwhelmed or overloaded.

"It also reminds us that life may not be perfect, but there are still so many things we have to be grateful for. And helping others is one of them."