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How retail leaders can avoid a pandemic burnout

The retail industry is facing unprecedented disruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with most businesses under strain and many across the globe struggling to stay afloat. As a result of social distancing rules and the impact on the economy, the majority of physical retail stores have been forced to temporarily shut their doors.

Unfortunately, we know from previous disasters in Australia that around 7 or 8 per cent of people will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – commonly referred to as PTSD – as a result of these challenging times. PTSD is caused when the fight-flight system in our bodies kicks in, but we have no way to act on the situation. There’s a strong possibility that business leaders in the retail industry could be susceptible to these feelings, thanks to the sector’s vulnerability to the new restrictions.

The current disaster has all the ingredients to result in PTSD. First of all, it’s a major threat to health and life. The news ensures we’re constantly aware of the death tally from COVID-19; we hear stories of friends, loved ones and friends of friends contracting and suffering from the disease, and we’re forced to keep our distance to prevent contracting and spreading it.

Secondly, it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. COVID-19 is an entirely new virus, and even the most experienced health professionals are still scrambling to learn exactly how it interacts with our bodies, including whether we can build up an immunity to it once we’ve contracted it. At the same time, economists and governments are struggling to predict exactly how the pandemic will affect global and local economies, as stock markets spiral and retailers go out of business.

Finally, there is little we can do to control the situation or avoid it, since it impacts every single one of us in our daily lives. The only real thing we can do is follow the guidelines of health professionals.

So, what can business leaders do in order to navigate these challenging times, especially when the retail sector is already struggling to maintain business as usual?

Accept the situation

There are several things a leader could implement in order to protect not only the mental health of their staff and colleagues but their own too. Leaders could model good mental health care in themselves, because modelled behaviour will reflect back into your business and your employees.

Firstly, this means accepting that concern is a normal and natural human physical response. When threatened, fear and anxiety are very normal feelings, and are actually our body’s way of protecting us through survival warning systems.

This survival mechanism might have made humans successful on planet Earth, but it can also cause mental ill health during traumatic times. Some people are more wired in that way than others, and some have their wiring changed and on hyper-alert due to many different kinds of trauma during their lives, which shows up as anxiety.

Structure your day

Structuring your day is a great way to help avoid the dissociative aspects of PTSD, or to reduce feelings of anxiety. Structure helps our bodies and minds to stop dissociating, and to feel in control of our lives. Even if you’re working from home, plan your day and week in a calendar in exactly the same way you would in your regular working life.

It’s not just about work things: plan the fun and enjoyable aspects of your life too. Plan your mealtimes. Plan exercise. Plan meditation. Plan in time for a phone or video call with your friends and family members. Make lunch dates by Zoom or other platforms to meet and eat with friends or colleagues.

Exercise is very important because it gives us a sense of our body power and agency in a time when the outside world is unpredictable and out of control. Doing weights, yoga, dance or some other form of aerobic activity is very important. Sitting makes the body feel powerless, so move as often and as regularly as you can. Good nutrition is another key factor here, especially when all of us are facing more meals at home for the foreseeable future.

Anxiety tends to be reduced when we take a problem-solving approach to situations and determine what we can do and what we cannot do. It might seem simple, but following the health guidelines of coughing into your elbow and washing your hands regularly preferably with soap and water, and wiping down surfaces with soapy water or other cleaning products are positive actions we can take. They can help give us a sense of control over the situation.

Focus on what you can control

The retail sector is facing unprecedented disruption, so when focusing on your business, try to only home in on the things you can control. If you spend too much time focusing on what you have no control over, it becomes worrying rather than planning. Many retail businesses are being forced to close their physical stores through no fault of their own, and there’s nothing that any business owner or leader can do about it. Accept this, and focus instead on the things you can control.

Worry is a waste of energy, like a car that’s bogged down in the mud: spinning the wheels gets you nowhere. To get the car out, you need to have something to put under the wheels. In the current circumstances, the something to grip onto are the things you can do in each day to keep yourself mentally well and physically well. Use the support on offer, such as government-backed business loans, the JobKeeper payment (if you are eligible) and maintaining regular contact with your employees.

Get connected positively

Isolation can be another challenging factor for business leaders during these trying times. However, it’s important to remember that while you might be physically isolated, that doesn’t mean you need to be disconnected from support and having someone to talk to.

Speak to a psychologist if you notice your mood has changed or you are struggling with the restrictions of needing to be at home. Psychologists are mental health professionals and can assist with a wide range of issues and concerns, including mental wellbeing. You can find a psychologist at aapi.org.au.

Reading the news might give you a feeling of “being connected”, but it can also be an effective way to trigger fear and anxiety. Try your best to get your information from medical experts, and turn off online sites or social media channels that tend to catastrophise or promote conspiracy theories. Limit your consumption of news that tends to be negative and amplifies your concerns. Instead, get information from government websites to know what is happening in relation to the management of the disease. Pass this advice onto your staff members, especially those who you know will be anxiously checking to see how the situation affects their life.

Adjust your perspective

Finally, think about the positive aspects of the situation. Consider how the current conditions and adjustments for work, such as working from home, might benefit your business and your employees when the pandemic ends. This is an opportunity to work on your business, have a fit-out done without requiring down-time in store, online marketing is lower cost than usual, and technology presents opportunities to continue to operate your business and make sales. Being forced to move your store online, for example, might become a positive development in conjunction with your previous stores.

These are difficult times, and while the biggest focus is on our physical health and safety, we cannot neglect our mental health – it is critical. Focus on what you can control and change, and make sure you stay connected, speak with someone who understands – and ask for help.

Anne Marie Collins is a registered psychologist and the president of the Australian Association of Psychologists (AAPi), the peak body for psychologists in Australia. https://aapi.org.au/

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