Supporting employees in times of crisis

September was officially wellness month for the events industry and #EventWell2020 provided some excellent resources to access. Saturday 10th October is World Mental Health Day which this year has adopted the theme of ‘mental health for all’ as its focus. Special days or months focused on causes or health and lifestyle related subjects are in abundance and they can prove to be an important and successful device for focusing our attention on subjects we perhaps to our detriment shy away from. Recognising that our industry has and is still being tested with the shadow of Covid-19, a focus on our collective industry and personal wellbeing could never be more pertinent.

A recent Guardian article in response to the Chancellor’s announcement on the evolution of the furlough scheme, and the impact on the hospitality and live events industry was, as perhaps anticipated, sombre. Debbie McWilliams, SEC’s live entertainment director was quoted as saying  “We fully understand the risk to staging events but there’s also a risk to the impact on jobs, mental health and wellbeing,”

It would be premature and perhaps insensitive to cite that our industry has been hardest hit by the pandemic but we cannot avoid the reality that the crown jewel in our offering – bringing people together – is at present largely restricted, as well as in conflict with what the general public are by and large comfortable with. We already know that there have been casualties, both in terms of established companies folding, and amazing talent having to be let go by their employees. On the flip there has of course been some incredibly swift and successful widening of virtual and hybrid solutions and our creativity and adaptability as an industry is testament to that. Strata has been fortunate to see our clients recognise that there is real and necessary value in investing in professionally produced online solutions for their broad brushstroke ‘event needs’. Solutions that go beyond the capabilities of Microsoft Teams or Zoom that may have initially been enough when we all of course hoped this crisis would soon ‘blow over’.  However, despite the positives, if as an industry we fail to recognise the impact of such a radical change to our core offering, be it through job uncertainty, loss or role change, we will have an even bigger crisis longer-term in terms of our industry’s wellbeing and mental health.

Something that is hard not to be struck by about our industry is the genuine passion and love people working within it have. Ask nearly any event professional why they do what they do and they will cite that feeling of pulling off an amazing experience before regaling you with the project they are most proud of. When all of the hard work leads up to those few long days and sleepless nights, culminating in the adrenaline of the live experience and basking in the joy of an audience engaged and positively impacted by what you and your team have produced. And that could be anything from a NYE public fireworks display to a clinical trial showcase for doctors – the professionalism and dedication that our people place on the experience is genuine and impressive. The desire to create a seamless experience that truly connects with the audience drives everything.

As we hit October, a month which officially signifies that Summer has departed and Autumn is knocking, I know I am not alone in taking stock and thinking ‘how on earth did we get here already?’. Reflecting on this incredibly strange year that seemingly ‘paused’ in March yet also keeps on delivering shockers like they were chapters falling out of a dystopian science fiction novel. As Summer progressed we waited for the next interval and hoped it would be a positive note. Yet here we are, with the R number rising and local lockdowns becoming more common place. Can we take comfort in that this time we have a better sense of preparedness and perhaps a wider realisation or acceptance that things really are not going to get back to normal imminently? Acceptance is an essential part of any journey, be it a break-up, a bereavement or even the loss of a precious material possession. And with acceptance you can also then start to move on to hope. Our expectations for 2020 might differ wildly from what we imagined at the start of the year and undoubtedly some people have suffered terribly, yet within us we have demonstrated and tapped into a resilience many of us perhaps weren’t aware we had.

Being supported by our employers to navigate and nurture this inner resilience is critical. Protecting employee’s Mental Health and wellbeing at work cannot simply be a focus for companies when things are buoyant. It needs to be a constant and authentic commitment, and by doing so when the seas gets choppier or real crisis hits the investment pays dividends. Tough decisions may need to be made. Some that could impact the livelihoods of many, so if at this point companies begin to swerve their original intentions not only can it impact on individuals but it reverberates through the company and industry as a whole. We have collectively been asking the Government to wrap an arm around us and their response has been perhaps lukewarm. The industry itself cannot as a result adopt the same temperature gauge to its people.

So how has Strata been navigating this tightrope of balancing the continuation of agency life and delivery of work, alongside the need to hold our team and remain buoyant yet pragmatic in the face of Covid-19?

One thing we are clear on is that our people are intelligent and informed adults. We do not shy away from the reality or gravity of what our industry is experiencing, yet we also understand that they are individuals, each with their own unique personalities and peccadilloes that may inform their responses. They also each have the very real nuances of their home and personal lives. In a time of crisis, especially one that keeps us largely remote, the lines between the different facets of our lives become even more blurred. All of this needs to be appreciated and considered when designing an approach that can best support people’s wellbeing.

Our approach to employee Mental Health and wellbeing is broad but has three primary features that we have really leaned into during this period. Trained Mental Health First Aiders exist at all levels, ensuring there is breadth of knowledge across the company for employees to comfortably access support should they require. At Board and management level there is recognition on the importance of checking-in with people individually, within functions and as a whole-collective. Like any agency we may not always get the balance 100% right, but having an awareness not to retreat into a senior management silo as we adapt, sometimes fight fires and navigate the pandemic, particularly with the majority of our employees remote working has helped. Our leaders can be held-accountable and endeavour to listen to their employees, recognising that different immediate priorities does not mean a lack of understanding or commitment to the bigger picture. Maintaining and working on this level of empathy is perhaps some of the best advice we could look to share with other industry leaders looking at how best to support their staff during this time.

Finally, we run a regular and dedicated programme of workshops that introduce our employees to techniques and practices that will support them and their mental health. Ranging in broad subjects from the use of technology, to how to get better sleep and developing a positive mindset, through to building resilience, the importance of breathwork and how to juggle parenting and relationships with working from home. Sessions are structured and informative as well as being accessible and informal. They work well because alongside framing and imparting valuable information they naturally open up to facilitating wider conversations. Sharing one another’s experiences, challenges and techniques for managing these times helps to forge even stronger bonds (and greater empathy) between employees, something that is paramount to successful remote working and growth of an agency both in times of crisis and beyond.

Casey Evans

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