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Fostering a culture of wellness in the context of COVID-19

The Sustineo team.

In terms of now non-controversial generalisations that COVID-19 has allowed for, the period since the emergence of the pandemic has been a huge challenge for people’s mental health and general wellness. From the start, at Sustineo we were aware of the risks related to individuals working remotely – including isolation, stress and work bleeding into non-work life – in non-pandemic times. When the emergence of COVID-19 forced changes to how we work, we have made a concerted effort to support the team.

Since March, Sustineo has trialled a broad range of strategies to help team members maintain their wellness within work and beyond. These are listed below:

  • We provided resources to staff to help set up work from home arrangements. This included a summary of research around maintaining wellness, avoiding isolation and tips of how to prevent work from permeating through your life at home.
  • We developed a work from home strategy which built from research in terms of helping to provide structure and focus. This included shifting from weekly team meetings to daily touch bases, as well as continuing semi-regular general ‘virtual coffee’ catch ups.
  • We developed a wellness staff survey which was completed weekly by team members and then discussed as a specific agenda item at the start of each week. In the initial phase, this was used to open spaces for discussion on adapting our practice to help people work well, and further to support team members. The survey has proven to be effective in gaining feedback from staff on issues they may have faced in being able to balance working from home and their overall wellness. 
  • We have a wellness channel in our internal messaging platform in which team members post articles on wellness or other related points of interest. Team members also post photos and other content – ranging from selfies from walks to pictures of pets – all of which help to promote healthy habits and fun engagement among the team.
  • We have a rotating fortnightly ‘exercise buddies’ who we share physical activity goals with and encourage each other to keep active. More recently, this has extended to the establishment of the ‘the Great Sustineo Step Off’ to encourage keeping active through friendly competition. Importantly, the ‘winner’ is based on their improvement relative to their scaled target number of steps over a fortnight (also important is that the winner gets a free kebab…as ‘balance’ is, after all, crucial).
  • We have had the staff-driven establishment of a weekly virtual yoga session. The timing of this session has been adapted in response to staff feedback to allow flexibility for staff to be able to participate amongst other work commitments.
  • To engage with our broader network of colleagues and associates, we started weekly Trivia sessions as well as a fortnightly social drink over Zoom.
  • We also try and recognise and celebrate the successes and positivity where it emerges – and it is important note that it does emerge even in tough times. Continuing a practice established pre-COVID-19, we start each team meeting or touch base with news and acknowledgements to share the good that is happening and recognise the work or non-work positives for the team.

Some of these strategies have worked better and have been sustained more easily than others. The response to COVID-19 provided an acute stimulus for us to implement and test a range of strategies in the organisation to help maintain wellness of the team. This was all done on the basis that the lack of face-to-face engagement could result in team members becoming isolated and their wellness suffering. However, in hindsight assuming that wellness was being supported purely through being in the same physical space is pretty daft.

Being in Canberra, we are in the fortunate position of being able to move back into the office and we are in the process of working out what our new work arrangements will look like. Putting our COVID-19 Safe Plan in place has meant we need to reflect on how we use our physical office (…we cannot all fit in the meeting room at once!). At one level, we are looking at re-crafting the physical space to be more inclusive of staff needs, engagement requirement and improved facilities to support active transport. The last six months has taught us that by trusting, listening, learning and adapting, we can work effectively as a team across multiple environments. We are therefore trialling ‘Team Tuesdays’ as the designated office-based time to have a team focus on important internal and project related discussions and workshopping. We are retaining flexible arrangements throughout the rest of the week to allow the team to take advantage of benefits that working from home or the office can bring.

For Sustineo, our response to COVID-19 in the wellness space – I believe – has had the positive impact of actually implementing a range of strategies to support our team that could have (and probably should have) been in place previously. The rewarding part of this has been that a lot of the activities have been driven by the team themselves, very much aligned with the ethos we were working towards at the start of 2020, building from other staff engagement activities (this will be picked up further in upcoming blogs). While we continue to refine and learn from what works and what doesn’t, wellness and a more explicit emphasis on supporting team members has been a very positive ‘silver lining’ of the last six months.

On a personal note, and somewhat ironically, I have struggled to be transparent and open with the team (and probably myself) about my own wellness. While I have carried a deep concern for all team members, I have found it a struggle to lead and support a team with compassion and kindness (as I dearly want to). I have learned it is hard to do so when you are also struggling, feeling frustrated and are in effect being closed to your own emotional wellbeing. At times in the past months, I was abrasive and inaccessible to team members. This is quite counter to the strategies and actions we were seeking to implement, as outlined above. These are challenges that we have talked through with team members and I have sought to be better with my sharing. It is an important reminder that you need to look after your own mental health – and to seek the support you need – if you aspire to be a support for others.

For more information on wellness at Sustineo… ask our staff! The primary utility of this piece was to inform discussion and reflection among the team. It has been posted publicly with their support and encouragement.

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