Stepping Back from the Ledge
BCEEA members take charge of their own wellbeing as a powerful way to counter the forces of continual strain in the system
For this inaugural issue of the BCEEA Leadership Update, we talked to three people working in different parts of the province about what they’re seeing and sensing — and how they’ve implemented key resilience tools in order to help their teams (and themselves!) weather this ongoing storm.
When the pandemic hit, Monica Jones found herself isolated in the remote, misty islands of Haida Gwaii, separated in lockdown from many of her friends and family.
The sudden shift was unsettling for Jones, a manager based in the small village of Queen Charlotte. She and her small team found themselves confronted by concern for their own health as well as fear among the public they serve.
While other government and private workplaces went into lockdown across the province, Jones’s work area remained open and serving the public. “Everything was changing daily, and sometimes hourly. In the midst of it, we were still showing up every day, doing our best to provide ‘Service With Heart’ — our branch philosophy,” she says. “There were no PPE or COVID work safety plans yet.”
Government websites crashed and phone lines overloaded as people clamoured for information and guidance. Jones watched as the fear and uncertainty spread like a brushfire.
“Because we were one of the few places where people could call and get a human on the phone, or could come see us in person, we got the brunt of a lot of frustration, whether the service was something we were responsible for or not,” Jones recalls. “It felt as if a layer of dust was sprinkled over everything that made people impatient and edgy. We helped people as much as we could, even if it was just to be a listening ear, but it was exhausting to deal with that energy day in and day out.”
Sound like your story?
Almost every British Columbian was brought up short by the fear and uncertainty dealt by COVID-19. The initial trauma was shock enough — yet here we are two years later, the sharp terror having slowly oozed into an ongoing strain of malaise, resentment and discouragement.
The strain on our teams is so real.
British Columbians have weathered a lot these past couple of years. “They are living through heat domes, wildfires, atmospheric rivers, flooding,” Jones says, “and we are there with them, responsible for supporting them through that and keeping government’s lights on, pandemic or not.”
You and your teams are feeling the load. People in government are tired, and discouraged with what feels like constantly changing guidelines. Telework agreements aren’t being implemented consistently and need onerous approvals. Some managers and supervisors feel more strongly about having in-office teams than others, which can create tension. Vaccine mandates have created discord across every ministry.
Back-to-back meetings exhaust people’s reserves. “I used to get in a cab and go to another building to have a meeting,” recalls Mike Kelley, Director of Front Counter BC. And now I look at my calendar and I think, how did I ever have half an hour to call a cab and go to another building?”
Time off is hard to come by. And when people do get away to recharge, the load of work that’s waiting when they get back makes them question whether taking a break was even worth it.
Add to that the huge learning curve involved in the shift to virtual everything — new tools, new platforms, new business processes. Some staff have responded to that well, and others have struggled.
There’s a lot of churn in the system, with people moving in and out of acting leadership roles, so it’s tough for teams to build reliable bench strength.
The BCEEA recently conducted a survey that echoed anecdotal comments from across government: a third of excluded employees are thinking about retiring early; another third are thinking about resigning; and over 40% of people are considering jumping to a different ministry.
The pandemic has made recruitment more difficult in general, which adds to the complexity. “Many of us have been changing around in jobs, so you’ve got the stress of learning a new job and trying to build team when the team isn’t physically in the office,” says Beth Eagles, Nadina district manager for FLNRORD, which is currently facing down a ministry reorg. “It causes stress. People don’t know what their job is going to look like or how it’s going to impact them. All of these things, although they directly impact your work, they also bleed out into your personal life.”
The stressors are pelting people from all angles, and they spiderweb into every facet of life.
Suddenly we’re isolated, and can’t work out at the gym. We have to figure out whether it’s worth not being able to work if we don’t agree with mandated vaccination. The public is pissed off with continued policy reform, and public servants have to carry that burden in their communities.
Some of us have lost loved ones through the pandemic, and our care and grieving rituals have taken a back seat to public health measures. Even though she now calls Burns Lake home, Eagles hails from New Brunswick, and used to fly home every couple years. “In 2020, my father passed away,” she says. “I had to fly across the country and quarantine for two weeks. I got home after my dad passed and I had to quarantine two weeks before I could get together with family. Then I had to organize a funeral.”
In 2021, Eagles’s mother passed away. And while she was able to share some time with her mum before she died, Eagles relates that it was achingly tough “being on the other side of the country during a global pandemic, not being able to fly home when you would like to.”
The stress, the fear, the public discontent, and the sheer volume of uncertainty can get to be a little much. It bubbles up in the grocery store line, where a middle-aged accountant explodes in rage because the person behind him isn’t standing a full two metres away. It takes us by surprise when we burst into tears when the rice hits the floor instead of the pot. Many of us have to talk ourselves out of bed in the morning.
Now, people are choosing to equip themselves to meet stress head-on.
While EAPs and other mental wellness programs have long existed for government employees, it took a pandemic for people to recognize that not one of us comes equipped in this lifetime with the tools to navigate the challenges that the 21st century keeps throwing at us.
Even more sobering, it’s dawning on us that no one is coming to make it all better. That part is up to us, as individuals.
In spring 2020, Jones, Eagles and Kelly, along with dozens of other public servants, took part in a weekly mental wellness series, sponsored by the BCEEA, called An Inside Job, picking up some game-changing strategies for dealing with stress.
Facilitated by Heather Lehmann and Associates, An Inside Job teaches people the neuroscience of threat and change, and introduces tools for greater resilience. Available in brief pockets of time (45 minutes per session), the course takes learners through models for using breathwork to calm the nervous system, practicing gratitude and mindfulness, leading with compassion, and building in play and time in nature as a restorative practice.
“The bite-sized length made it easier to participate,” Jones recalls. “Every week they would do some theory, followed by something practical that you could put into practice right away. It was quick. It was interesting. Heather and Liz [Gilliland, BCEEA executive director] both were very engaging.
Jones goes on to explain that these sessions are different than most. “We’ve all been in training sessions where we find our attention drifting,” she says. “I found with these sessions, I didn’t want to miss anything. There was so much packed into a short period of time that if had to step away for a few minutes, I missed a nugget.”
Nuggets like our brain’s response to threat. Did you know we have five times the neural networks devoted to scanning our environment for threats — and that the experience of “uncertainty” ranks right up there with a sabre-toothed cat charging across the tundra at us? “No wonder we are all struggling,” Jones says. “Being able to look at citizens, colleagues, and my own feelings and behaviour through that lens helps me have more patience and kindness and compassion that we’re all in this threat mode and we don’t even realize it.”
Kelley also appreciated the quickness of the training, and was encouraged to see a large and consistent turnout of 40 or more participants. The breakout rooms added particular value for him in going deep with other leaders: “You’ve got a short period of time to talk about how you feel about something,” he says, “so you just say it…You can get into a conversation pretty fast.”
For Eagles, An Inside Job afforded an opportunity to step outside her usual work zone and connect with people across different ministries. “It was really good for me to talk to other managers,” she says. “Often the situations that people are dealing with in more of the social ministries, I would say, are different. I can learn a lot from them because we tend to be so operationally focused in Ministry of Forests…. It’s good to hear those different experiences and how people are handling them. And also really great to know you’re not really in it alone. Everyone’s experiencing similar things.”
Nope, none of us are in this thing alone. And there’s a modicum of comfort in that — an increased willingness to bond and show our human sides as we struggle along in community with each other.
In fact, the pandemic has been a bit of an awkward gift. In the before times, we wore our masks a lot more. We weren’t as willing to admit to our tension headaches or our cloudy moods or our tendency toward perfectionism. Brené Brown started the vulnerability ball rolling a decade ago, and the pandemic has seen almost everybody pull a seat up to that table now.
We’re ready to be 100% human. How do we help each other do this?
Managers and other leaders know well that their conduct is always being watched. So the best way to engender healthy shifts among your team is to walk your talk, and be openly human as you do so. “My husband and I are both immunocompromised,” Eagles says, “so being vulnerable with people and talking about how it’s impacting me [helped] people feel they could share and have a support network.”
Encourage your teams to share when they need support, as well. When Jones felt she was reaching a breaking point, her colleagues were able to shift some of her work onto their plates. “People can’t know to help us unless we’re open about what’s going on with us,” she says. “That’s been a big lesson for me throughout all of this. When you’re so used to being the helper and the one that other people come to for support …it can be pretty humbling to have the shoe on the other foot. But in doing so — in being vulnerable and in accepting help and talking about the fact that you’re struggling — some really awesome things can come out of that if you’re in a trusted space.”
If it worries you to think about everybody suddenly declaring their own state of internal emergency, don’t let it: the stress waves hit people at different times and with different triggers. Not everybody is having the same bad day. “It’s a good thing that we’re not all at that high anxiety peak at once,” Eagles says. “We’ve kind of been able to support each other as a team. As long as we’re not all on the edge at once, we’re okay.”
Lean on your coaching skills. Holding space for others creates psychological safety and helps you get up to speed with what’s going on for other people. Kelley now holds one-on-ones with each member of his staff a couple times a year, since he can’t get out in the field and visit his team in different parts of the province like he used to be able to. “It’s relationship-building that I enjoy doing,” he says, “and we do it pretty well through virtual. I often will take time to talk about things…that are a little bit more personal, so that it’s not just about work… I think it’s important to recognize that people have personal lives, they have personal issues.”
To that point, Kelley advises being flexibile with the teleworking guidelines, to allow people to choose the optimal working environment for them. “I bet you I can get more productivity out of somebody if they work at home five days a week than if we make them come in for three,” he says. “Because quite often people that work from home… put in extra time because they’re not commuting. They’re in a better state of mind.” Leaders who demand their teams be in the office full-time are going to lose out on great people.
Instead, Kelley says, use the guidelines and give people trust. Office environments are not a prerequisite to quality work. Building trusting relationships with your team means they’ll get the work done, no matter where they’re sitting while they do it. “I think for every 50 people I trust, maybe one or two of them take advantage, but most of them don’t,” he says. “Most people are not asking for more than they need. I’ve found it very rewarding to say to people, So what do you need to do to be balanced and to try to survive this okay?”
We gained ground in many ways throughout COVID-19, so think about the changes you want to hold onto. “We are tighter-knit group out of necessity,” says Jones. “The speed of change required collaboration with new tools and new ways of getting things done. Regular branch-wide meetings now include our supervisors as well as excluded managers. New daily work processes, scheduling and staffing that would never have been considered pre-COVID, are now regular work life. As well, in my branch it’s become the norm to check in on stress levels, discuss self-care, mental health, wellness. When all of this finally settles, we’ll be left with those positives that will continue on. We just need to survive this rapid change.”
Heraclitus, an obscure Greek philosopher who espoused the need for people to live together in harmony, is credited with the well-known adage that the only constant is change.
We’ll never go back to the way things used to be, and there’s admittedly some grief there for all of us. Humans are wired to look back wistfully, but mindfulness and Buddhism remind us that all we have is right now. Staying present and keeping your focus on what’s working is our stretch assignment for the coming years. Humanity is undergoing a massive shift, and whether we like it or not, the water’s going to be stormy for a while.
The cool thing about humans is that we’re all learning to surf.
Put these tips into practice to support your team’s mental wellbeing:
- Ask for help when you need it. And encourage your team to do the same. “We don’t always know what to do,” Kelley says. “I’ve learned to say to people, I don’t know what you need, so you’ve got to tell me.”
- Learn controlled breathing. Focused breathing directly affects your neurotransmitters — specifically, noradrenaline, which is responsible for increased heart rate and anxiety. You can 100% shift the way you feel when you discipline your breathing.
- Connect with people. Employees feel honoured when you take an interest in what’s going on for them. “We have really leaned on and relied on each other through all of this,” Jones says. “To have someone notice, connect with each other to say, Are you OK? We’re both not OK, but that’s OK. We’re here for each other.”
- Schedule meetings to start at five past. Yes, you deserve to stretch and refill your tea mug. “I feel sometimes like going to the washroom at the office was easier than here,” Kelley says. “And my washroom is 12 steps away. In the office it used to be 200 steps away!”
- Let go of your perfectionism. Forgive yourself for not meeting your usual standards all the time. “Sometimes good enough was that the door was open, the lights were on and there was a human in the office to greet citizens,” Jones recalls of the early days of the pandemic. “Sometimes you just have to give yourself some grace in that you’re doing the best you can. You’re only one person and sometimes good enough has to be good enough.”
- Accept the things you cannot change. Writer and consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle has been crystal clear with us that for the most part, our struggles are a direct result of wishing things were different than they actually are. Eagles now leans on the sphere of control / influence teaching she received in An Inside Job to remind her to focus on what she can mold, and what she can’t. “That really helps me when I get overwhelmed, is to really focus on what I can control and what is outside of my ability to control.”
Extract from An Inside Job (courtesy of ©Heather Lehmann):
AN INSIDE JOB: MINDFULNESS
Focused breathing directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. It works like a brain fertilizer! By focusing on a regulating your breathing, you can optimize your attention level and your mind becomes sharper.
One example of focused breathing, “4-7-8 Breathing” is as follows:
- Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold for 7 seconds
- Forcefully exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds
- Repeat 4 times
Practice twice a day for maximum benefit.
This practice is easy to use “in-the-moment” when faced with a stressful situation. Truly taking a pause and breathing more deeply and more deliberately can help you think better.
Dr. Andrew Weil explaining 4-7-8 breathing:
Greater Good Science Center: Why practice compassion?
National Geographic Live: This is Your Brain on Nature
Brown, Brené. (2018) Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. New York, NY: Random House.