Back to Normal?

Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

Back to normal: two words in there that have been profoundly questioned across the last year. There is a pervasive sense that we should not go back (but forward), and that we can, and must, define a new normal.

The story in newly-opened pub gardens might look a little more nostalgic. Most of us fallible humans probably crave both: our old lives back and a huge chance for a rethink.

This month, as we – in the UK at least – transition through a planned lifting of restrictions, let’s talk a bit about how we’re feeling.

Taking action for Mental Health Awareness

Right on cue, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week 10th – 16th May 2021, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. Not wishing to add to any overloads here, there are three areas worth addressing for employers:

  1. Supporting wellness here and now
  2. Recognising additional mental load
  3. Understanding Covid’s long tail

1. Supporting wellness here and now

Many of the employers Bright Horizons works with have taken care to prioritise wellbeing in the last few months, including signposting a range of support, from Employee Assistance Programmes to internal networks. We need to encourage conversations to continue now: send out leadership messages to keep wellbeing on the agenda for team meetings. Build in a few minutes for teams to share tips on what keeps them well and how everyone can help each other.

Remember that – as large numbers of us move toward more hybrid ways of working – this might be a challenging time, after many worked so hard to develop all the habits of fully-remote working. From the relatively small problem of not being able to fit one’s lockdown body into the bottom half of a suit any more, to anxiety over travelling and mixing; or the wistful disappointment of finding the socially-distanced office does not – after all – feel, look or even smell, like it used to. It all adds up. Talking about it can normalise it.

If you have not yet run a webinar on wellbeing, then do it now. Or do it again. We’ve even got a pro bono one you can point your team towards: Avoiding Burn Out: The neuroscience of stress management.

One more thing well worth doing for immediate wellbeing: tackle online meeting fatigue by building in short breaks. Yes, it’s not just you, or just your team, that’s feeling it: the neuroscience is persuasive. This Microsoft Work Trend Index report is helpful with its immediate sense-making graphic, representing brain activity. “Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab used EEG caps to measure beta wave activity—associated with stress—in the brains of meeting participants”. Spoiler alert: constant meetings are associated with constant beta waves and not much relaxation.

2. Recognising additional mental load

Many colleagues have carried additional load in the last weeks and months, and it is not always visible. Among groups impacted in different ways, working parents are one to keep in mind. Schools may be back, but the mental load is not over.

The latest onslaught is the worry about educational catch-up. Branwen Jeffreys’ BBC report draws out the implications of data from The Education Endowment Foundation study of 50,000 pupils, showing an increased number of four- and five-year-olds needing help with language.

The pressures for parents trying to compensate for this – and feeling guilty about falling short – are captured in our Bright Horizons US colleagues’ Modern Family Index, just published. The Index draws on over 2,000 working parents surveyed in February, 2021. In the research, “Nine in ten parents are worried about their own (91%) and their spouse/partner’s (91%) mental load” which is worsened by educational concerns: 30% said that their children are falling behind academically and missing out on the social aspects of school or child care (60%), having too much screen time (60%), a lack of extracurricular activities (53%), and physical inactivity (48%). “About one in four (24%) also believe their children are becoming more withdrawn or introverted.”

What can employers do? Practical help makes a difference. “Nearly half (46%) of working parents hope their employer will provide some form of child care or emergency child care, and more than one in four are looking for their employer to offer academic (27%) and college preparation (26%) tutoring or resources that will benefit their children.”

As the school summer holidays approach, employers that fund access to wraparound care including holiday clubs (whether virtual or onsite) or simply help in finding care, and/or support with tuition, will be showing understanding. Even without a budget, it’s possible to encourage a parents’ network to exchange tips on resources for catching up, and to share authentic stories that take the pressure off too.

Inclusive access to meaningful support is key. The US Modern Family Index also found: “White parents (82%) were more likely than Black (72%) or Hispanic (77%) parents to call their employers sympathetic to working parents’ situation; white parents were also more likely to say their employers provided enough (82%) and the right kind of (81%) support, versus 74% and 74% of Hispanic parents, 69% and 67% of Black parents”.

3. Understanding Covid’s long tail

There are two very significant ways in which some will not feel “back to normal” for quite a time, perhaps ever. The effects of Long Covid are becoming gradually more clear, along with the traumatic impact of this era.

Post-viral syndrome can occur after a range of viral infections, including the novel coronavirus; and there is also an increasing list of potential long-lasting symptoms characteristic of long Covid specifically. Just as we found with the pandemic restrictions, the experience of contracting Covid itself has not put everyone in the same boat. Among our colleagues and their wider families will be those living with ongoing conditions and those with new caring responsibilities; some with both. We need continuing awareness and sensitivity; and to be able to signpost information and support.

The NHS site ‘Supporting your recovery after COVID-19’ has helpful pointers for individuals and for relatives, as well as a list of symptoms with advice on managing them. The Royal College of Occupational Therapists guide to ‘Recovering from COVID-19: Post viral-fatigue and conserving energy’ is also a very practical resource.

The other long shadow cast by Covid is the post-traumatic one. Natasha Hinde weighs up, in Huff Post, whether we actually need a new name such as Post-Pandemic Stress Disorder. Either way, we need awareness that some around us have been through a lot. Many have experienced losing, and grieving, their loved ones in strange and isolated situations. Others have found new or existing physical or mental health conditions worsened by lockdown in frightening ways. Right now, those with friends, family or connections in parts of India, Brazil, Turkey, or other countries experiencing ongoing waves, will be terribly impacted by those images and stories that disturb us all. It’s not all behind us. We need to keep in touch with our heightened sense of community, and keep thinking that way about our work colleagues, our employees.

The Change Curve

One thing we do know, about going through personal – and collective – loss and change is that it does often result in growth. This does not in any way reduce what is happening for people but points to the way that individuals, communities, organisations can, and often do, grow through disruption. We travel down through the trough of the change curve before we can climb back up and on into new capabilities.

Our US Modern Family Index pointed out: “In the era of COVID, children are managing their own mental loads, burdened by decidedly grown-up worries about social distancing, remote learning, and fear of illness....”. Alongside this, I was attending our Early Childhood Specialists’ Knowledge Community meeting the other day. This month’s theme was Enabling Environments. During a conversation about managing risk, one of the Specialists commented: “the children have shown how good they are with Health and Safety with all the Covid awareness”, in a way that acknowledged the children’s adaptability and resilience, so naturally.

We have all learned, reflected, understood some things through these times and we need to hang on to that; as well as being willing, and honest, enough to talk about the things we have lost. There’s a moment now when we can be intentional about how things could be, how we’re building back. There’s an opportunity to value both performance and compassion, and to keep talking about how all of this feels.