Kōrero to kindness: Exploring mental wellbeing in a COVID-19 disrupted business world

COVID-19 and lockdowns impact Kiwi businesses in so many ways, typically bringing uncertainty, change and extra workload. These are often compounded by challenges in connecting (physically at least) with our regular networks – business people, friends and family. Sound familiar?

While COVID-19 is still a relatively new phenomenon, humans are quick to adapt. With Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 upon us, we “took time to kōrero” with a number of BDOers to build a picture of some of the coping techniques, tips and tricks they’re seeing among business people and their thoughts on how to get through.

The pandemic presents a unique set of circumstances. However, parallels can be drawn with other business challenges, as BDO National Clients & Marketing Manager, Michal Petrus explains. “One farming client recently shared his story of tackling major change. The successful but challenging transformation of his farm management model to become more sustainably focused, was grounded on strong relationships with his trusted wider ‘team’; on farm, his family and workers; off-farm, his accountant, banker and other professionals. Only through being open to regularly sharing his thinking with them at every stage, were they able to help offer timely, expert advice and support in return.”

Michal adds – “Similarly, in managing mental wellbeing …it’s vital to identify your own ‘trusted team’ – those who genuinely care about you, to regularly kōrero with and help watch out for your triggers. When facing business pressures, unfortunately business people, like others, often struggle finding time for themselves and to stay connected with their trusted ones – and it’s so important to consciously prioritise this time.”

Angela Edwards, BDO Partner & Māori Business Sector Leader highlights a common Kiwi psyche, often resulting in prioritising others. “We often hear ‘be kind’ echoed through media. This has almost become a self-defence tool to protect ourselves and those around us from challenges that continue to arise throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When we feel ourselves slipping, losing composure, we recite ‘be kind, be kind to one another’. However, one of the key lessons we have also had to learn is to ‘be kind to ourselves’ and ‘it’s okay not to be okay’. Manaakitanga – looking after one another and being aware of how people are coping plays a key role in getting through the tough times.”

Despite its challenges, the new world of virtual gatherings has also unexpectedly opened some doors to deeper individual relationships, as Angela explains: “Whakawhanaungatanga is about connecting and relationship building, being family-like in its widest sense. We’ve found ourselves connecting with our BDO employees at a deeper level as their homes became our extended office and their whanau became our extended whanau - learning more about who they are than we ever knew before.  Many business clients have shared similar experiences with both their employee relationships and connections in the wider business community. It’s been heartening.”

Not all business people naturally feel at home with video calls. It's increasingly vital to consider communication preferences before reaching out. “Calling clients during lockdowns, rather than emailing them, helps give that human connection which is so important” notes Justin Martin, Advisory Partner, BDO Wellington. “But the starting point is always reflecting on who needs contact, when is best for them, and how. Businesses are being more explicit regarding their communication preferences and availability, which certainly helps when they’re under pressure, but it’s something we all need to be more open about sharing.”

Juggling pressures and boundaries between busy work and personal lives is now commonplace for business owners and managers, but also something we need to be more open and accepting of, adds Gina Cook, Advisory Partner BDO Auckland. “On a personal front, I’ve learned to accept that what doesn’t get done, just doesn’t get done – and that’s okay. Whether that’s home schooling, the housework, a normal productive day, or running out of inventive things to cook for dinner!”

COVID-19 disruptions have also brought about some key learnings with cross-team engagement. This week also happens to be international #AuditorProud week, and Michael Rondel, BDO Partner and Audit & Assurance National Leader Partner, shares some learnings from his professional engagements which are relevant for a wide range of businesses.

“Audit work often involves teams on both the client side and BDO closely collaborating towards a critical deadline – which has potential for a challenging dynamic when working remotely. Clients don’t always have ready access to all their regular information and people on both sides will be balancing work and personal commitments. In these situations, effective inter-team collaboration relies on leaders from both parties regularly connecting and sharing the status of their team members, with a lens on wellbeing, workload, risks and priorities. It’s been special to see the way the reporting network, including regulators, has rallied and come together; showing compassion in working towards team deadlines, and even granting occasional extensions to relieve the strain.”

For those of us fortunate to be in a healthy headspace, Mental Health Awareness Week is a timely reminder to take a moment to consider fellow colleagues and business people in your community who might consider you to be a member of their wider ‘trusted team’ – even if not by an explicit invitation - and value a kind-hearted kōrero. No one should go through a tough time alone.

A summary of ideas to reflect on:

  • Who are the members of your ‘trusted wider team’? Do they know it? Do they know where you’re at right now?
  • Let your ‘team’ know your preferred communication channels and best times to connect; and consider those of others.
  • Lockdowns have their upside. Take the opportunity to reconnect and maybe even build closer relationships.
  • It’s okay to put yourself first …and ‘it’s okay not to be okay’.
  • You’re busy but you’re human. Accept that you can’t always do everything on your daily plan.
  • Are you or someone you know in need of help right now? (See more below)

Where to turn for more help

Xero small businesses, their employees, and their families are able to access the Xero Assistance Programme (XAP) which offers free, confidential access to face-to-face, telephone, live chat, and online counselling.

For further support, for yourself or others, visit the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand website.