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3 Tips for supporting your employees with critical illness

In this time of overwhelming change and challenges, workplace support for vulnerable employees can sometimes be forgotten. Our team of health and wellbeing professionals have collated three tips to help you get them through Coronavirus (COVID 19).

Coronavirus (COVID 19) is unlike anything we’ve known in our lifetime, shifting how we live and work for the foreseeable future. Now what?

Businesses must continue with their good intentions, but most importantly, track and adapt their approach regularly.

Here are some top tips for supporting your most vulnerable employees remotely:

1. Flexible as a yogi

Many employees will be settling into remote working and forming new daily routines whilst others continue to navigate the commute to the office or adapt to being placed on furlough

Whatever situation your people find themselves in, keeping employee engagement high, anxiety low and productivity stable will be crucial in getting your organisation and workforce through the coming months.

Let’s take Reframe as our example here. This week our Chief Operations Officer has communicated two ways that Reframe can provide employee support: flexible working hours and dispensing office equipment to use in the home, ensuring the physical wellbeing of employees.

“We don’t know how long we will be working this way so everyone must be set up to work effectively from home both from a mental and physical well-being perspective. Some of us have the luxury of an office space at home and can distance ourselves from distractions but the reality is that many do not have the space and are having to manage.”

Andrew Gueterbock, Chief Operating Officer, Reframe.

Reframe is permitting adapted working patterns (e.g. completing four hours from 9 am to 1 pm and 3.5 hours in the evening from 5 pm) or, the option to reduce overall weekly hours with pro-rata pay reduction and annual leave adjustments.

These ideas may not work for your organisation but they give you something to think about. Without sounding too gloomy, we are living in a distressing time and it’s down to management and business owners to help employees take control where they can.

Altering working patterns can give room for necessary breaks (the reason for which they may not want to share with you). Does a teammate need to check in on someone or have a call with their clinician? 

Limited access to GP practices during lockdown means that some employees will need to take on greater caring responsibilities such as administering medicines, changing a loved one’s dressings and bathing them.

If your employee is undergoing treatment, does an earlier start and finish work better for them if they become easily fatigued in the afternoon? An employee undergoing cancer treatment may, for instance, be struggling with chemo brain.

Encourage work warriors, not worriers.

2. Physically distant but socially connected

It sounds simple but do you hold an up-to-date list of your colleagues’ personal and emergency contact details? Do they know how to reach you out-of-hours? 

Communication will be fundamental over the coming weeks, more so than ever before (regardless of how important your last project was). So make sure your team is armed with the basic information they need to keep in touch and seek support when they need it.

Social interaction is a hugely important part of the workplace, and before the recent lockdown, people didn’t realise how vital this was for employee wellbeing. Employees with a critical illness or who are caring for others will be missing this exponentially. 

A community spirit and collective effort will help ease the stress, burden and loneliness individuals can feel when juggling employment with caring responsibilities. Working carers will probably be feeling helpless. The type of help they had been giving may have reduced from weekly outings, daily chats and shopping trips to dropping off a food delivery at someone’s door and making a phone call. 

Focusing on team communications will help them feel less mentally isolated than they are physically.

Keep mental wellbeing in mind

During this time, it’s easy to forget about illness other than that caused by COVID. Yet, the risks for anyone with an existing health condition are heightened, resulting in many vulnerable people remaining in isolation for several months. 

The ensuing lack of social contact can negatively impact a person’s mental wellbeing. An individual suffering from a critical illness may have anxieties and questions about their treatment or vulnerability that need to be addressed as well as emotional turmoil over being prevented from giving their family a hug.

Use this time to create innovative employee socialising activities. A few things which could work in your organisation  include:

  • Virtual team quizzes
  • Exercise challenges — such as holding a three-minute plank, or the highest number of squats performed within one minute (all the rage on Instagram stories at the moment)
  • Coffee and chat
  • Thirsty Thursday — bring your beer or bubbles (or squash) to the laptop and have a catch-up
  • Newsletter reminding employees of the resources and support they have available to them
  • Can you include links to cancer or carer forums? Providing a shoulder to lean on can be extremely positive for employee mental wellbeing

Keep a check on how your team is coping. Ash for regular employee feedback on which tools are working for them.

Test, monitor and adapt.

3. The mental and physical benefits of a work-life balance  

Your people will have different responsibilities and projects but if they’re staying online longer than usual, ask them why. Do they need to reduce their workload? Are they struggling to prioritise their time?

There will be a lot of changes and disruptions to the working day for many of your employees — from dogs popping up on a video call to children wanting to be fed. Calm their nerves and let them know you don’t mind these minor interruptions and that they are perfectly normal and expected when the team is working from home. 

If they’ve booked annual leave, ask them if they still want to take it. People still need downtime even if the only option is to stay at home rather than jetting abroad. Remind them that taking time out isn’t selfish, it’s necessary in order to stay well and motivated —  especially if they are also handling caring responsibilities or trying to adapt to a new routine.

Keep communication varied. Don’t fill the diary with back-to-back meetings. Everything may seem serious, but you can make the best of a difficult or challenging situation. 

Keeping workplace morale high

Keeping morale high and boosting workplace resilience will be paramount to the success of your organisation and its people. How about asking everyone to set themselves a personal objective?

Perhaps there’s a would-be photographer or graphic designer lurking within your team — encourage them to sign up for the online course they’ve been putting off or pick up a book and start learning. 

A positive attitude will ripple throughout your organisation, as well as providing a distraction from the potentially oppressive gravity of the current situation.

Taking extra care

People living with an underlying health condition such as cancer need to take extra measures to protect their wellbeing. 

Some will be classed as extremely vulnerable — this will include those undergoing active chemo or people with lung cancer receiving radiotherapy who have been advised to stay at home at all times and avoid face-to-face contact for a period of 12 weeks (they will have received a letter from their GP telling them to do so).

Staying active

Are your colleagues taking regular breaks? Using their daily outdoor allowance in a way that is appropriate for their level of vulnerability to take in some fresh air, stretch their legs and give their mind a rest? 

They may be advised not to go outside or visit public places because they are at a higher risk of transmitting COVID. If they do not have a  garden of their own, can you point them in the direction of online exercises such as a yoga platform? 

Muscle immobility is one of the most common reasons for muscle aches that result from working at a computer for long hours. Nobody wants to log off feeling like they’ve aged ten years.

Be prepared

Be prepared to respond if you are asked for help. Now that you can’t offer support from the office, you need to create a bank of resources that can be accessed remotely. Is there a Facebook group for remote workers who are coping with a critical illness? 

One resource Reframe has found useful for clients who may want to ensure they have all relevant personal information to hand in the event of an emergency is the Lifebook by Age UK.  

This is a simple tool that provides reassurance and comfort, especially for carers. It helps working carers feel more in control by providing access to important information in one place (helpful for when they’re feeling mentally exhausted). 

Let your people know they need to put their health and wellbeing first.

We’re all in this together.

You can’t guarantee everything is going to be ok, but there are things you can do to help make this time easier for your vulnerable employees. The above suggestions may seem like small changes, but every little bit of support will help.

Leadership skills will become apparent. Crises don’t build characters; they show them.

Supporting your people will give you and your organisation the best chance of bouncing back when this is over.

Download our playbook: Strengthening employee wellbeing through COVID

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