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Network News • 24-07-2022

Mental Wellness at the workplace conference

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on The Malta Independent: 24th July 2022

With some nostalgia, I recall how PKF sponsored and participated in a Mental Wellness conference organised by Mark Azzopardi at the Hotel Excelsior. It was well attended and as can be expected a good portion of the audience were HR practitioners who flocked in droves to Floriana, not to miss a unique opportunity to participate and discuss issues faced by the workforce during the two years of the pandemic.  

Having worried, anxious and overwhelmed staff was understandable during the past two years, yet with the sudden release of all health precautions the island's shores are open to all and sundry. A number of youth festivals are being organised free of charge by MTA and caution is thrown to the wind in a frenzy sound of cymbals, heavy bass and wild partying. To start with, prior to May, office staff were potentially exposed to the virus during their commute or at their place of work, while they constantly fear bringing the virus home and infecting their family. A common headache is the fear of being redeployed, furloughed or made redundant or in the case of the hospitality sector - workers faced drastic changes in work role and practices, amid concerns about empty hotel rooms and vacant cafeteria tables. Restaurant owners in Valletta, stretching to nine popular streets, now attract droves of patrons late at night where music can blast unhindered. Forget for a moment, that active Covid cases (those reported) are on the increase and hospital beds are in high demand at Mater Dei - it is a shame, witnessing patients being cared for in beds parked in the great cafeteria hall. Memories linger of families during lockdown, with young children at home while schools were shut, changes in domestic responsibilities, such as childcare, that constantly interfere with their obligations to conduct online work.

All these factors are grist to the mill and were amply discussed at the Mental Wellness conference hosted by Colin Fitz. He introduced a formidable list of top local and foreign speakers. The tightly packed programme started by Jane Piper addressing topics such as connectivity and its impact on mental wellness. This was followed by an interesting presentation by Yasmin De Giorgio on the importance of personal growth at work. A panel of specialists tackled the subject of "the caring arm of the law". Robyn Pratt, founder at Impact Consulting went into detail about some of the intricacies concerning "mindset matters". What can HR managers do when dealing with intense emotions expressed by workers during an emergency was a hot subject tackled by Martin Richards. The next session saw Stephanie Dimech Sant, CEO at the Richmond Foundation explain the unique services provided by the Foundation for users and pleaded for voluntary assistance to continue improving regular free services to sufferers.

The audience participated by fielding questions to a panel of experts who discussed ways how assistance can be given to staff struggling at work. After a light lunch, delegates were poised to hear Dr Wendy Molefi. She is a highly experienced GP and advocate for workplace wellbeing and wafted lyrically on the subject of Mindful Leadership. Josef Bugeja, secretary general of the General Workers Union expanded eloquently on the subject of how to Prioritise Employee Mental Health. Other panel members included Joseph Farrugia DG, Malta Employers Association. He expanded on the theme reinforcing the creed that caring for employees' mental health is certainly good for business. The next was David Spiteri Gingell, Independent Management consultant who gave a poignant view of stress at work and shared personal sufferances faced during his career. The highlight of the event was a keynote speech delivered by Derek Dick, AKA Fish, talking about personal experiences as an international artist during the bleak years of the pandemic. This was followed by a panel of experts tackling the Covid-19 impact on business. My recollection of the rich stream of personal experiences recounted by speakers asserts the notion of how important it is for Malta, as a small island, to nurture the mental health of its workers. It was March 2020 when out of the blue, the health authorities, guided by WHO, warned us to observe lockdowns, curfews, keep social distances and wear protective face masks. Schools, airport, seaports, churches, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, gyms and other public places were ordered to shut their doors for five months. Workers were ordered to stay at home, (whenever practicable) and families with children united around the kitchen table fearing to leave home except for essential errands. These two years, as lockdown eases, or comes to an end, our working lives are changing again. As was discussed at the conference, it is now that employers realised how important it is to deal with these issues, some of which left mental scars on the workforce. Panel speakers concurred that the Covid-19 experience had a major impact on the wellbeing and productivity of their staff, both now and in the longer-term. There has been a lot of talk about the "new normal" but we are quite a distance away from knowing how things will settle down in terms of restrictions and adaptations in our lives and our perception of the horrific Russian unilateral invasion of Ukraine. HR managers know Covid will leave an indelible scar on staff. Conference speakers listed a number of useful tips for managers and human resource professionals:

  • Show empathy and be available: Understand that employees are likely feeling overwhelmed and anxious about circumstances related to the virus. Make yourself available to your staff to talk about fears, to answer questions and to reassure them about work and other issues that might come up
  • Stay connected with communication and meeting tools: Use virtual meeting options with video, like Zoom or Teams, for regular check-ins and to allow teams to connect with one another "face-to-face"
  • Recognise the impact of isolation and loneliness: Working remotely can cause people to feel isolated, as loneliness can lead to depression and other mental health issues

Some people are at greater risk of poor mental health and invariably the bete noire was the mental condition of burnout. Experts were of the opinion that burnout is not technically a diagnosis in itself, but instead refers to a collection of symptoms. Workers, without realising, can be experiencing burnout as they feel completely exhausted, having little motivation for the job, feel irritable or anxious and on close observation, management will witness deterioration in performance.

In conclusion, PKF is proud that it was one of the sponsors and in a modest way contributed as a moderator in one of the panels.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on The Malta Independent: 24th July 2022
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