How to manage mental health issues during COVID-19

Workplace mental health expert Jordan Friesen shares tips on how film and TV workers can cope during periods of uncertainty and what employers can do to help. (Unlocked)
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When the COVID-19 crisis brought production to a standstill, Canada’s film and TV industry responded swiftly. Organizations urged the government for decisive action, large donations were given to emergency financial aid programs like the AFC, and a nationwide task force was formed to survey the fiscal damage.

However, when all is said and done, the devastating impact of the COVID-19 crisis won’t only be measured by the dollars lost, but the psychological damage caused by the tidal wave of uncertainty and lack of security. Especially in an industry where workers already face precarious employment conditions, with a large number of Canadian film and TV workers living contract to contract. IATSE, which represents approximately 25,000 workers in film, TV and theatre across Canada, estimates that virtually all members are currently out of work. More than 1500 projects have been impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CMF.

“Access to secure and stable income is one of the core social determinants of health and well-being, as well as access to housing and food security,” Jordan Friesen, national director, workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), tells Playback Daily. “When you’re already in a precarious situation, we would anticipate that the impact of something like this pandemic on your mental health is likely to be greater.”

Friesen, who oversees CMHA programming and resources to help employers create psychologically safe environments for workers, says the organization has heard concerns about increased worry and anxiety across the board. “We’re seeing workers that are finding it difficult to adjust to the new reality of working remotely and trying to balance work and life, which are integrated into the same space,” he says, adding that managers have shared their concern about how to “foster psychological support and safety” for remote employees.

There are a number of habits and measures people can take on an individual level to mitigate the psychological impact of the pandemic. Friesen recommends maintaining social connections while keeping physical distance, limiting the amount of news and social media you consume, and focusing on the things in life you can control. “It will help you maintain a sense of self-efficacy in a world that’s steamrolling you,” he says.

Friesen also shared a few crucial tactics that employers should roll out to help their workers cope with the new normal.

Over-communication

Maintaining regular communication is a key staple during these times, whether that means sharing updates on the state of the business or organization or a company check-in during periods when nothing has changed.

“Worry and anxiety grow in the absence of information,” says Friesen. “Establishing a regular pace and frequency of communication with employees, whether they’re at work or off work, is really critical and helps reinforce that sense of routine and normalcy.”

Set clear expectations

Friesen says employers shouldn’t expect employees to work at peak productivity and to anticipate work slowdowns, since everyone is devoting most of their energy to coping with the changes that have come with the pandemic. However, that doesn’t mean workers get a free pass to slack off, and a lack of level-setting may have a negative impact on employees when they worry they’re under-performing.

“Set the expectation that work will likely not proceed as normal, but be clear in identifying the critical things that need to get done and need to continue getting done to keep the business going,” he says. “Employers can do a whole lot simply by sending a message that there’s going to be a change in how productive we are collectively, and that’s OK.”

Do your homework

Empathy goes a long way in reassuring employees that their mental health matters, and so does preparation. Friesen recommends for employers to become familiar with resources on mental health support and to already have it on-hand when workers approach them about their personal anxieties and struggles. The CMHA has resources available to help employers navigate this uncertain period and psychiatrist Jerome Perera has published an extensive guide on how to maintain mental health and wellness during the pandemic.

Long-term impacts and support

While it’s currently unclear when production will begin to ramp up again, Friesen says the need for mental health support will go beyond this immediate demand. This may be a traumatic event for many in a situation where they feel their sense of safety has been jeopardized.

Thankfully, no one is alone in this. The Ontario government has already committed support to mental health workers with a $12 million investment in virtual mental health initiatives and an additional $2.6 million to hire psychologists and other supports for frontline responders. Friesen says the government has committed $2.5 million to support CMHA’s BounceBack program, which offers over-the-phone coaching and online tools for individuals 15 or older dealing with mild or moderate depression, stress or anxiety.

“Employers should be particularly attuned to that as employees come back to work and understand that once the pandemic is over, the need for mental health support is going to continue long past the first day back on set,” he says. “Try to establish a sense of routine as quickly as possible. It helps mitigate stressors and anxiety.”

Keep up with Playback‘s ongoing coverage of COVID-19 here.

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