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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Helen Bartimote and Jamie Dobson on Mental Health and Well-Being during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Helen Bartimote and Jamie Dobson on Mental Health and Well-Being during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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In this podcast, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Helen Bartimote and Jamie Dobson from Container Solutions about maintaining mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • Mental health and wellness is not a new challenge for the technology industry, and it is more openly discussed today that is has been previously
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has put many people into a collective state of shock. 
  • Acknowledging the emotional reactions and their impact is an important part of being able to cope with what is happening.  It's really important to give them time and know that they will pass, come back again and pass, and that’s OK.
  • It’s important to identify what you can control and acknowledge what you cannot control, accept that the feelings of being out of control are real and they are stressful, and that you always have control over how we respond to a situation, even if you can’t control the circumstances
  • Empathic responding, finding ways to care for and help others,  is one of the best ways to respond to a crisis and contributes to our own well-being

Show Notes

  • 00:00 Shane: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down with Helen Bartimote and with Jamie Dobson, both from Container Solutions. Helen, Jamie, welcome. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.
  • 00:19 Jamie: Thank you for having us, Shane. It's good to be speaking to you from New Zealand today.
  • 00:23 Shane: Now we are on opposite sides of the world, but the world we are in truly is chaotic today. We're all dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and the pandemic and everything that goes with that. And Helen, you wrote an article that originally was just going to be something you were sharing within the Container Solutions folks, but it definitely has picked up a lot of traction since you posted it on the Container Solutions blog.
  • 00:53 It's about maintaining your mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. But before perhaps we get into that, tell us a little bit about who's Helen.
  • 01:01 Helen: Okay. Well, I've worked for Container Solutions for the last 12 months, and I've very much been supporting the emerging leaders within this company and also the executive team.
  • 01:15 So, you know, we've spent a lot of time on building a resilient mindset, as a company, to face the challenges that, companies face on a day to day basis, and also supporting them in terms of selection and assessment, having unbiased processes in place, supporting the head of talent in the company with those processes.
  • 01:37 And so, yeah, that's been my role. I've worked as an occupational psychologist for the past 20 years. With very large, I worked for a long time in the emergency services, and I've also worked with a number of businesses, small and large. So, I've experienced different situations, different challenges with individuals in fairly senior levels of organizations. So that's my background.
  • 02:01 Shane: And Jamie, you are the Chief Executive Officer, CEO, founder of Container Solutions.
  • 02:07 Why would you bring on a a psychologist? You're a tech company.
  • 02:11 Jamie: Yeah, that's a great question, Shane. I think the Genesis for the psychology goes back to when I was in my twenties, my mid-late twenties and the wild West back then, it was very different to what it is now. So, we noticed, for example, that actually it was today, I think, well, recently InfoQ released the quarterly report into to the state of teams and culture,
  • 02:33 Shane: Our software teams and teamwork trends report
  • 02:37 Jamie: here you go, I've given you a plug there, but it's relevant because back then, right now Agile and the things that sort of collaboration you would imagine is normal in your late majority. Well, 20 years ago that was very unusual. So, we worked in extremely hierarchical organizations.
  • 02:53 And actually mental health was a real thing. It's not spoken about, but you know, alcohol use and drug use and abuse was actually reasonably prevalent back then. And it was mainly connected to the mental health of the people we worked with.
  • 03:07 And I just sort of remember thinking if we had a psychologist working in our teams, what that would do to performance. So I came at it from a high performance perspective because that's my area of expertise. How do you create sustainable high-performance.
  • 03:21 Now fast forward about 15 years from there and Pini, and I, Pini is the other founder of CS, started to piece together how we wanted container solutions to look.
  • 03:31 And that was indeed based on giving people autonomy, freedom, the chance at work to be safe, to take risks. And actually, if you don't go beyond your stated intentions, you're basically just full of it. 
  • 03:44 So working backwards from those intentions, what structures do we need and what experts would we need in house? And so we've had psychologists working full time within container solutions since the beginning and how the knee is actually part of a team of three full time professional psychologists.
  • 04:00 Shane: So what does an occupational psychologist do on a day to day basis in a company like Container Solutions?
  • 04:07 Helen: Well, like I said, you know, my emphasis has been supporting the heads  with developing and ensuring we have a structured unbiased selection process.
  • 04:19 So that might be the introduction of appropriate psychometric measures. We use personality profiling in a structured way, so we've looked at the appropriate profiles for different roles, and looking and developing competency-based approaches to assessment, which is underpinned by having an actual behavioural framework.
  • 04:41 So we have, as a group, determined what is important, what behaviours do we expect to see in different roles, and how are we going to measure them from the very onset, from the point of selection before individuals have even started with the company. And so that's a really big part of many occupational psychologists roles.
  • 05:01 Also, you know, if you're coaching individuals within an organization, you have to have an understanding of what creates a healthy mindset. You know, what supports a healthy mindset? Well-being, well-being at work is a huge area for occupational psychologists.
  • 05:17 You know, there's so many different areas:  leadership training, group work, teamwork, supporting organizational culture.   Ensure systems, procedures are in place that all supports the mission. You know, as Jamie was saying, the psychological safety has been an important aspect from the get-go, basically. So do the processes, procedures, systems, all support that.
  • 05:40 And you've got that explicit support from the top senior team as well to all of these processes. So yeah, and occupational psychology is very much based in terms of evidence. So having empirical evidence to support what we're doing, to support the terms that are being used to support the systems that are being put in place, to support the measures that are being introduced.
  • 06:04 Shane: Safety, the situation where the world is in right now, most of us have been sent home to work from home. I'm in New Zealand, we're in level four lockdown. We're told not to go outside. Don't burst our personal bubble. Different countries are at different levels. We see some horrifying statistics and you know, watch the news every day and almost fall apart.
  • 06:28 Which, coming back to the article that you wrote, how do we maintain our mental health during these pretty scary times?
  • 06:37 Helen: Yeah,  very, very scary. I think, you know, we need to start at the emotional level and we all need to be aware that the emotions that we're feeling are all normal reactions to this really quite shocking situation.
  • 06:55 You know, we're in a sort of collective state of shock, and what happens over in a state of shock is, you know, we might go into a sort of fear based emotional state, we might go into denial and avoidance.
  • 07:09 So firstly I would say that these feelings of sadness and anger and frustration and fear. These are common emotions that we have, most likely, all experience at some point  over the last however long, few weeks, and it's really important to give them time. It's really important not to try and push them away and deny that they're being felt, even though you might want to, and it's a scary place to sit with these emotions. But actually from a psychological well-being perspective, it's really important to give them time and know that they will pass, come back again and pass, you know, and give them time.
  • 07:50 And then this in turn will help make them less prominent, if that makes sense. So that would be my first absolute sort of foundation of advice is spend time, and do not deny them, do not try and push them away. You know, we are all in, in that, and it's all body's natural, sort of protective mechanism is being triggered.  Because they're all some benefits to having a certain level of anxiety. There are all these natural benefits because we're more likely to engage in health seeking behaviors, the washing of the hands, the adhering to the social distancing.
  • 08:26 So actually those emotions are serving us, they are there for a reason within humans. We will have those basic emotions and they are serving us and at the moment they are serving as a very much a protective mechanism. So that would be my first piece of advice. Is give them time.
  • 08:44 Shane: So just thinking for my own self, we went out for a walk this afternoon, keeping social distance, but if somebody came to close, I did feel fearful, moved out of the way on the path. It's not something one wants to feel.
  • 08:58 The other is myself, I've been working from home for three years, so that's easy, but I know a lot of people have been thrown into a circumstance where maybe there's a couple who don't normally work at home, now they're sharing a dining room table because that's the only working space and they've got two kids running around.
  • 09:17 Helen: What we'll look at there is the behavioral response, the actual changes. But I think before we go to that, so moving from the emotional level, it's them thinking about it from the cognitive perspective. You know, in terms of this feeling of losing control and it's much more prominent. And research has shown for previous virus outbreaks like the SARS, that the response of feeling out of control is so much more than other significant, very stressful life events where we'd might feel out of control, you know, illness, a divorce, whatever that is. But this one is that feeling of just, I'm overwhelmed. I'm just so out of control now, even as you said, you know, you're used to working from home.
  • 09:57 That feeling of being out of control for individuals who are used to being home-based is probably still a prominent feature. So what we're looking at is from a cognitive perspective. So what can we try and do is, firstly, always remember that we can control our response to this situation psychologically. We've always got a choice of how we respond psychologically, to whatever's going on around us, whatever.
  • 10:27 So you know, some people have found it helpful to just make a list, a simple list of what can I control in this situation? You know?
  • 10:38 And even if at first it feels like just setting off everything, I've got to share this space with my partner, I've got my children running around, I can't focus, I can't concentrate...
  • 10:49 OK - putting that to the side. What can you control?  Make a list and then, you know, make list of the things you can't control at the moment. And just by doing that, just by going through that process, that will hopefully start to shift and you'll probably find you're spending a lot more time on the things that you can't control than the things you can. You might be drawn to the things you can't control in those moments of fear, in those moments of sadness.
  • 11:15 Jamie: So I know within container solutions we have a culture and almost a policy of taking full ownership for everything. And in normal times that would usually mean, let's say we made a mistake with a customer and something went wrong, or let's say one of our potential new hires was a particularly obnoxious person.
  • 11:34 We are clearly not responsible for somebody being rude or silly or daft, but it doesn't mean we can't own our reaction to that. Why did it go like this? How did it happen? Is there anything to be learned? Even though we're not necessarily to blame, and what COVID has actually done is brought that into sharp focus.
  • 11:53 So something we've been practicing for a few years is now all of a sudden being spoken about openly. What can we do today? What can we cook? What can we do to our hair?
  • 12:02 Now, obviously you can't see this on the podcast because the video won't be switched on, but you may notice, Shane, I've got a Wolverine haircut right now. That may seem silly. Yesterday on Slack, we were asking each other and I was trimming my hair because I can't get to the barbers and my beard was very long and  to the Slack channel. What should I do with the beard? Leave it, shave it or go Wolverine, and of course, all my colleagues, being rather playful said, okay, you've got to try to cut a Wolverine  into your beard now.
  • 12:31 You could say, I haven't done a very good job, but even things as simple and silly as that do give you a sense of control. And philosophically we've all been reflecting on the fact. How much do we actually control anyway, right? And so we may have felt a loss of control, but internally we are playing with the idea and talking about philosophical stuff that usually when we're dealing with kubernetes and invoices is not something you'd usually talk about.
  • 12:56 Shane: One of the points that you put into your article was the concept of empathic responding. Could we maybe explore that?
  • 13:04 Helen: Yes. So this is an interesting area to consider in times of crisis and times of threat, and the research shows us that people will tend to respond in one of three ways with some being more helpful than others.
  • 13:17 So we've all found ourselves at times engaging in wishful thinking. I wish this will just end, it will blow over soon, it'll be done by April. You know, some prominent figures in the media we might have seen, might have been engaged, being in that sort of, let's hope it's over by Easter type scenario
  • 13:37 And then you know, others might engage in a more support seeking, and obviously we all need to reach out to others but it's more of a sort of, I cannot cope with this on my own, I cannot do this on my own. I just won't be able to get through this. And again, you know, it's a natural reaction, is wanting, but we all have to sort of collectively think about how our behaviors are also impacting on our coworkers, on our family as well, even though that can be very challenging.
  • 14:04 So the most effective way, and again, this is based on actual research in crisis situations, is that, as  you said, the empathetic responding.
  • 14:12 So thinking about how you can support and help others around you, whether that's your immediate, you know, the family dynamic that you have.  Obviously from a a work perspective, reaching out to coworkers. And it's interesting here in terms of if there is a sort of senior hierarchy, however strong that is within a company we need to be flexing and reaching out to people who are managing us, people who were managing, our coworkers.
  • 14:40 And I think if you've created a culture where it's okay, and you're used to giving feedback, you know, difficult feedback and positive feedback to the people who maybe are managing you. Then that's not going to be so difficult  and that's what Container Solutions psychological piece has very much being about, it's creating the culture where it's important to be able to do that without fear that you're going to be criticized for giving honest and open feedback to somebody in a leadership position, for example. And so if you created that culture and you've supported that, then in times of crisis, we actually reaching out to people who are managing you and saying, are you okay as well? How can I help you? Is nothing unusual,  you know, so that's how I'm saying things all fit together like pieces of the jigsaw.
  • 15:29 So when we are in this crisis situation, you could say for companies like Container Solutions that empathetic responding, is not going to be awkward. And that's been shown to help and improve, again, the well-being of individuals. And obviously it benefits the communities that people are in. So that's really important.
  • 15:47 But you know, we will all fall into those other two responses as well from time to time. That's only natural, but if we can try and reach out to others in terms of offering support and help and trying to empathize as well with what other people are going through, and that's really important for people in leadership positions as well.
  • 16:08 And we're actually putting a blog about that together in the next week or so, aren't we Jamie, in terms of leaders showing empathy, you know, being able to work with those emotions in sort of difficult times.
  • 16:21 Shane: So, at a practical, pragmatic level, what do I do?
  • 16:25 Helen: Right. So there's a lot around at the moment, isn't there, about this practical advice. A lot of it extremely useful.
  • 16:31 I mean, I would say, again, focusing on the control, what can you control within your home environment? Can you create space? If you can't create space, talk about boundaries, how to create boundaries. Obviously, if you have outdoor space, that's wonderful. Make the use of it. If you don't use the daily exercise, if you can still do that, you know, these are all practical.
  • 16:52 If you've got children, it's really important to acknowledge that you are not a homeschooler. You know, just emphasizing this to people with families, it takes months to prepare to be a homeschooler. We are not homeschoolers. We are parents who are carers. What we can do is ensure that it's okay for them to know if they want to be close to you, if they walk in on a meeting, that's okay. We're working different times. A lot of us have children at Container Solutions.
  • 17:20 Jamie: I guess the most practical advice in your article is in the daily life section, isn't it? These are concrete, you know, number one, reach out. 
  • 17:29 Part three in your article: take care in the morning and you make the interesting point that anxiety can be worse in the mornings.
  • 17:36 So to go outside, take a breath of fresh air, maybe jump into a hangout with your colleagues. Now practically how we've implemented that Shane is we have now a constantly running Google hangout called the break room. When people can pop in all the time to discuss. Now, we did rename it last week to the breakdown room.
  • 17:54 That was a little bit of dark humour and that's because at the whole, I realized New Zealand is ,the infection rates are probably just a little bit behind us in Europe, but we genuinely were shocked to our cores about two weeks ago and most people at Container Solutions spent the first week doing exactly what Helen said they shouldn't do, which is probably drinking a bit too much wine, coming into the Google break room, drinking beers together.
  • 18:17 But it's very interesting to know that within the second week, people were cooking, sharing their cooking recipes. Our colleague James made a wooden bowl, on his Dad's lathe up in Yorkshire.  So after the first week of sort of dark humour and panic, we finally started settling down into much more constructive things to do.
  • 18:37 And then of course, Helen continues: be mindful of your media consumption. Mention your daily routines, and of course the, the classic, avoid the excessive use of unhealthy coping strategies such as drugs and alcohol.
  • 18:51 Helen: 18:51 You know, these are practical suggestions. And I think using those alongside what I was talking about, giving time to the emotions that you're experiencing is important and some people have found using some of the meditation, the mindfulness apps, very useful because that gives your mind a break from processing all of this information around us. And I do think this media consumption piece is really important as well. Be mindful of where you're getting your information from and how much are actually consuming and be mindful of the impact that that's having on the people around you as well.
  • 19:33 If you're in a household with an individual who has that news on 24 seven, then it's important to have a conversation with how that might be impacting on you. I think that's one of the important pieces. And as Jamie said, take care in the morning. And that's if you've established a good routine, you've established boundaries and anxiety can be higher in the morning.
  • 19:57 So just try and embed that as a habit soon as possible. Keeping to the routine is critical.  When you have other members in the house. There isn't a school routine anymore. Try to create that as well. And also think about what routines you've had previously that you can keep. So I was talking to somebody yesterday in a coaching session and he was used to cycling - we have a lot of people who've cycled in based in Amsterdam - cycling to work, coming home, and he was really missing that. But actually, you know, there's no reason why  you can't example, keep one of those the morning cycle for the same length of time, but obviously going around the home and that's his daily exercise, as long as he's maintaining social distancing, he's just doing the one piece of exercise in the day.
  • 20:44 Do it in the morning, you know, when he would have done it before.
  • 20:47 So, you know, there's maybe little bits of the routine that you can keep. Obviously we've all read about trying to make sure the sleep routine is kept and you know, changing work clothes and all of those sorts of things that are really are very helpful.
  • 21:03 And you know, it's just using that rational mind to think, what can I do to keep these routines and establish the routines at the same time as  making sure that you're trying to do some sort of exercise, that you're trying to keep the diet, that you're avoiding the excessive use of coping strategies such as alcohol.
  • 21:20 In times of crisis we often reach for the things that are actually the most unhealthiest way to respond. You know, again, we've got to just be aware of how much we are reaching to those strategies as well.
  • 21:34 Shane: Lots of  good advice. Very practical stuff.
  • 21:38 A final point from either of you, or both of you.
  • 21:41 Jamie: I'd like to mention the team routines that we've created.
  • 21:45 So we haven't included them in the blog, because this was about meditating your personal mental health, but it's probably wise for us to create a follow-up blog about what we're doing in terms of communication.
  • 21:57 So every morning now. I've said that a small summary of the key events that have happened, so new business closed, and we've actually had three people suffering from the Corona virus, and one of them actually was a New Zealander, just coincidentally, and he'd been very sick.
  • 22:13 And so obviously we want to try to communicate everyday how people are doing. Are they on the mend, what's happening in sales? Because as well as the anxiety of becoming sick, people have tremendous anxiety about losing their job. Because if businesses were out of money, that obviously we're in a tricky situation.
  • 22:30 So in the executive team, we do scenario analysis. We look at what happens if we lose all our revenue, what happens if we lose 10% of the revenue, but 20% of the people get sick? And then I could communicate those scenarios in real time as they unfold. And then every Friday we meet and we say, okay, we meet face to face.
  • 22:48 How are we doing? And you know, we are a group of a hundred people. It gives people a chance to ask questions and the overwhelming feedback has been this is very useful. It's extremely good of us to keep the team abreast of all what's happening. You know, obviously I'm too young to remember the second world war, but I've tried to imagine people hunkering down around the radio, listening to briefs every day about what was happening.
  • 23:09 And also what was happening in their local city, and now we're all distributed, so it feels like I'm stuck in a radio station somewhere. I've got this stupid mike next to me and I've got my keyboard, and that's about it. We found those to be extremely helpful, daily briefings on Slack with a weekly briefing as a hangout.
  • 23:26 We have not hidden anything where we've lost revenue, we've discussed it where we've seen potential cuts that need to be made, we've discussed them. We did state from the outset while policy and strategy was, and that was basically number one: nobody will be made redundant at Container Solutions during the coronavirus,
  • 23:45 But number two:  should we have to cut costs they will be across the board with the higher earners taking a bigger hit on their salaries. And it was not entirely conscious, but clearly what we're trying to say is we will get through this together. We will rise together, but we will also fall together.
  • 24:03 And I think as Helen said, a lot of managers who don't understand their own value system, are scared to make such bold statements. So, they tend to be a little bit robotic. We will be fine. We are taking measures, which may put some shareholder's minds at ease, but it won't put your people's minds to ease. 
  • 24:20 We think that's very important: bold statements from a bold direction, and then constant communication, and I'll be honest, one of the fine lines we've been trying to tread, I've been very deferential to the people who have died and deferential to the health workers who are really struggling now. And the zero-hour contract workers that are currently unemployed, but at the same time telling jokes, because if you don't do that you can't get through this. So we are treading some very fine lines now between, you know, talking about money because we don't want to go bankrupt, but without seeming to be grasping and self-centred, I don't think all leaders will get that right. But it's better to try to get that balance because the dark humour, it needs to be coupled with this reality we're passing through.
  • 25:03 So it's better to try and fail and apologize than necessarily to be so sanitized you don't end up inspiring your group of people.
  • 25:10 Shane: Jamie, Helen, thank you ever so much for taking the time to talk to us today. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?
  • 25:19 Jamie: Well, in the next couple of weeks, we're going to be doing a webinar about these guidelines and mental health, so we're hoping people could come in I'll be there along with Helen and our other psychologist, Andrea.
  • 25:32 Helen: Obviously Twitter is a good way of finding out what we're doing, but also I try and share articles that I know based on actual empirical evidence, so they're research based, so they're founded in, you know, good research and good evidence, and that's really important, I think at this time.
  • 25:51 Shane: What is your Twitter handle
  • 25:53 Helen: @helenbartimote. It's not particularly creative. Yeah. That's my Twitter handle
  • 25:59 Jamie: And you can get me @jamiedobson. So I think Shane in summary, the webinar, which is going to pop up in the next week or two, that may become a regular thing. The blogs on container solution and of course Helen's Twitter stream where she is summarizing up to date and  accurate psychological advice.
  • 26:17 Shane: Thank you so much.

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