Maintaining mental health during COVID-19

Maintaining mental health during COVID-19

In the second part of Waste Management Review’s series on industry challenges during COVID-19, we speak to mental health experts and the private sector about strategies to support one’s well-being for those working remotely or in a customer-service role.

While COVID-19 has caused significant challenges for society from a public health and business continuity perspective, one of the elephants in the room is mental health.

The impact of losing one’s job or feeling isolated can be overwhelming for many, but taking steps to manage one’s well-being can go a long way to reducing stress, anxiety or associated issues.

As former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the current Chair of Beyond Blue said in a recent statement, as humans, we’re hardwired to crave stability.

“If you’re feeling worried and unsettled that is perfectly understandable,” she said.

At an event for young people called WE Day, she said she spent quite a bit of time with Sophie Trudeau, the First Lady of Canada.

“When she became unwell and tested positive for COVID-19, I was concerned about potentially becoming sick a long way from home,” Ms Gillard recalled.

“What I found reassuring was that the public health advice that was so clear. The recommendation to me was to self-isolate for 14 days from the time of contact.”

She said the experience reinforced how a significant part of the solution to this pandemic rests with us.

“The daily decisions we make now are critical and every single one of us has a part to play,” Ms Gillard said.

“Our individual acts can have a powerful collective impact, helping protect those most at risk in our community.”

With around three million Australians living with anxiety or depression, the risk during this time is even greater not just for those three million individuals, but many others out there.

While it is important to acknowledge that not everybody has the benefit from working from home, with many in the resource recovery sector having to interact with members of the public, taking care of oneself, both physically and mentally can build resilience.

For employees in a position to work remotely, the Australian Psychological Society provides advice on its website to maintaining one’s mental health during social isolation. It recommends staying connected to your peers via phone or videoconferencing technology. Additionally, structuring your day with set activities, setting up a dedicated workspace and maintaining regular contact with your manager/colleagues via phone, email or videoconferencing is important.

With 6000 employees across the country, including many thousand on the frontline delivering essential waste management services to communities and businesses, Cleanaway’s response to the COVID-19 impacts was focused on safety, clarity and assurance.

The company recognised that confusion and uncertainty from the range of messages in the media was putting additional stress on Cleanaway teams. Additionally, it knew it had a role to play in providing assurance so that its people could remain calm and focus on protecting their health and safety.

Cleanaway’s Johanna Birgersson, Executive General Manager Human Resources, says the company’s ‘Home Safe’ value has never been a more central focus.

“We outlined a clear Emergency Management Plan (EMP) that was aligned to guidance provided by the relevant authorities but framed around our own business requirements as an essential services business. We set up a COVID-19 information hub on the intranet which contained detailed FAQs with responses, clarifying what the latest rules and guidelines meant for Cleanaway,” Ms Birgersson says.

Ms Birgersson says Daily Response Committee meetings and the dedicated employee inbox ensured employees were able to voice their concerns and questions and receive timely responses.

“As the situation has evolved, we’ve seen the full range of queries, from the small and pragmatic like access to hand sanitiser, to fears around safety for family members and job security. Our objective has been to minimise anxiety and impact to mental health as much as possible by resolving issues and giving assurance where we can,” she explains.

For situations that are beyond our ability to control, Cleanaway’s Employee Assistance Program, Lifeworks, gives its people access to independent and confidential support. In February it had implemented the web and app-based well-being platform through Lifeworks, giving all employees and their family members – however remote – access to health content and support through their computers and phones. A further benefit is the ability for Cleanaway to communicate with all employees through the platform specifically targeting messages around safety and well-being.

“As an essential service provider, our teams are on the frontline working with customers and the community every day, without the option to work from home. Ultimately by providing a safe working environment, clear messages and reassurance throughout a difficult time, Cleanaway have worked to remove additional or undue mental health strain for employees,” Ms Birgersson says.


In Victoria, Gallagher Workplace Risk works closely with the Victorian Waste Management Association to provide its members with support.

Paul Marsh, Practice Leader, Workplace Risk Southern Region, deals with workplace compensation, injury management, rehabilitation and return to work. He and Brianna Cattanach, Gallagher Workplace Risk, are both occupational therapists with a background in mental health. Ms Cattanach handles the education and training arm of Gallagher Workplace Risk.

“One of the challenges of remote working is it’s incumbent upon managers to be able to pick up the early warning signs that someone is struggling and that’s a lot easier to do when you’re seeing someone face-to-face,” Mr Marsh explains.

“Having said that, I think it’s ever more important try stay and conduct a Facetime or Zoom chat and even try and pick up the tone of voice in a phone call and not be afraid to ask if they’re OK and be more direct in these times.”

Ms Cattanach says that for those that have to interact with others at work can be challenging and one of the risks is fatigue.

“There may be some anxiety associated with roles that have a customer service aspect to it,” she says. She says in these scenarios, employers allowing for mental health days or some downtime can help workers in operating roles.

Ms Cattanach stresses that it’s OK to not be OK – this is a challenging experience for all of us.

“Sharing common experiences can provide a level of relief and re-assurance that you’re not the only one going through this experience, right through to having a level of social engagement that creates meaning and builds resilience,” Ms Cattanach says.

Ms Cattanach stresses that first and foremost, supporting your workforce to maintain good psychological health and safety is always more effective than waiting to respond to indicators of poor mental health.

“Knowing your workforce and being able to identify changes in their mental state is never more important than during times of crisis and challenge,” Ms Cattanach says.

“It is essential to make well-being conversations part of the norm and encourage regular and honest communication between workers and their managers.”

She recommends recognising the new challenges being posed to your workforce as a result of COVID-19 and providing information and education around these.

“Uncertainty breeds anxiety, so wherever possible communicate regularly, transparently and directly with your workforce,” Ms Cattanach says.


She says the term “social distancing” can carry with it a negative connotation as it’s important to be “physically distant” but “socially engaged” so to speak.

“Be mindful of the known psychological implications of social isolation and promote physical distancing and social engagement over social distancing,” she says.

She says that prioritising people KPIs over operational matters will best drive the best overall outcomes for safety, productivity, financials, culture and a return to normal down the track.

“However, don’t assume that all managers are well equipped in this space – consider online learning modules or checklists and resources which can support them to have more meaningful conversations and more effectively identify risks,” she says.

Ms Cattanach says it can also be an opportunity to recognise the new skills and strategies required to work during this time and provide education such as eLearning modules. These can include strategies for mental health self-management or working from home.

“And rest assured that good workplace practices haven’t changed – promote your workplace values, manage any instances of bullying and harassment, especially if they relate to COVID-19 and ensure your workforce are adhering to the very necessary safety considerations at this time.”

Mr Marsh says there may be some occupational health and safety issues and their implications for workplaces that are not well understood. That said, he stresses the importance of ergonomic home-work offices.

“The demarcation between work and home life is now more blurred than ever. Different things will work for different people but a really effective tool is to keep a normal routine, whether it’s going for a run, having breakfast and even putting your “work clothes” on,” he says.

He says it’s important to also switch off after working hours.

Finally, in line with early intervention, Ms Cattanach says that wherever possible, provide points of contact within your workplace who are able to offer mental health support and guidance – not treatment.

“This may involve upskilling key people in mental health first aid which can still be achieved during the current community restrictions,” she says.

“As always, employer assistance programs can be of great support. However be realistic that these programs are not able to provide you with feedback about the needs of your workers. Consider the use of employer provided telehealth services during this time, who can provide specific reporting and recommendations back to the workplace to assist you to support your workers.”

In addition, she says make your teams aware of all the community-based services available to them is important. The government continues to increase access to mental health and financial support services and a range of the recognised mental health bodies are providing useful content on their websites.

This is the second part of a four part series on challenges and opportunities during COVID-19. You can read part one by clicking here. In part three, we will explore innovations across the sector that could become the norm into the future.

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 – 

Lifeline: 13 11 14 –