(Image: Tina Tiller/Getty)
(Image: Tina Tiller/Getty)

PartnersDecember 9, 2021

What Covid has taught us about wellbeing

(Image: Tina Tiller/Getty)
(Image: Tina Tiller/Getty)

The pandemic showed us how much we’ve taken for granted and revealed some important lessons about life in Aotearoa. Here, five people from different professions talk about those lessons, and how we can take them into the future.

This content was created in paid partnership with Z Energy.

When lockdown lifted in Tāmaki Makaurau last Friday, our largest city had made it into the top-10 list for longest worldwide lockdowns. As the rest of the world seemed to take their biggest hits early, with some notable exceptions from our Australian neighbours, New Zealanders felt somewhat unreachable until the delta variant arrived. 

We partied in the summer, held festivals and concerts that broke world records and drew the envy of those overseas. While Covid was still raging elsewhere, New Zealanders got to enjoy restriction-free festivities and for a time, it felt like maybe Covid was a thing of the past. 

But in the last three months, the threat of Covid has come back with force, with Auckland the worst hit and the rest of the country waiting with bated breath to see if any leaks from our biggest city will spring up in their hood. It was back to Zoom meetings with colleagues, with silly hat mandates over video-call Friday drinks trying to bring some joy to the situation that was otherwise dreary. 

Some took up exercise and some took up exercise again after falling off the wagon post-2020’s lockdowns. Motivation peaked and dove faster than it had before – we started Mondays at the home office/dining table with every intention of smashing the to-do list then crashed into a stress heap just two hours later. The “fuck 2020” novelty home decor became more ironic as we watched 2021 dissolve into an even messier pile than its predecessor. 

But throughout all the chaos, there were several lessons learnt. Conversations about mental health in workplaces became commonplace, we found solace in reading and in going on our stupid little walks, and we learnt how to self-direct our work and learning. Now, as we open up for summer, how do we ensure those lessons aren’t being forgotten? The Spinoff asked five people from different professions about what they’ve learnt about wellbeing throughout the country’s Covid lockdowns.

Take it slow: Sarah Cowie, senior lecturer, Auckland University school of psychology

Senior psychology lecturer Sarah Cowie says the past two years have left everyone fatigued, whether you’re a resident of Tāmaki Makaurau, having endured over 100 days of continuous lockdown, or somewhere else, dealing with the ever-present threat of Covid returning. While the first lockdown provided time to get into knitting or running or reading, the longer we were stuck in that situation, the faster the novelty wore off.

“As a result of that, we might see a shift towards less beneficial behaviours like spending more time aimlessly scrolling social media or napping,” says Cowie. 

Patterns of heightened anxiety have been consistent throughout Covid, with changing rules meaning the simple act of seeing a friend is now far more complicated, and that can take far more cognitive energy. 

“We have a very long learning history of being able to relax and interact with people and not having to think too much about what you can and can’t do, and this is a very different situation.”

But despite all the heightened stress and frustrations, there are many positive lessons to take from the Covid lockdown periods. Greater freedoms for employees to work remotely, work to different schedules and more open communication about mental health are all useful lessons that will still be relevant in a future when Covid is no longer a concern.

“We will keep doing the things that we have discovered that we enjoy doing, like being able to work from home and commuting less, but also potentially, at least in the medium term, we will probably place a lot more value on being able to have face-to-face social interactions,” says Cowie.

Opening back up for the summer is a prospect that has left many with an even more heightened sense of anxiety, as people prepare for Christmas gatherings and, for Aucklanders, the first domestic travel they’ve been allowed in over three months. 

Cowie says one of the most helpful things we can do for ourselves, which in turn will help those around us, is to be honest about our social and mental capacity over the next few months. 

“Take it in small steps, make sure that you’ve got a bit of downtime worked in,” she says. “If you can temper other people’s expectations, that will help you to behave in a way that makes you feel comfortable but also I think other people will appreciate the fact that you can say ‘this is a bit of an unfamiliar situation and I’m feeling anxious about it’, because they probably are too.”

Andrew Shand (Image: Supplied)

It takes leadership: Andrew Shand, Z Energy head of safety, wellbeing and risk 

The pandemic quickly revealed how important employers are to the holistic wellbeing of their staff. That starts with creating an environment that acknowledges the mental health of employees, says Andrew Shand, Z Energy head of safety, wellbeing and risk.

“We all have mental health and it’s measured on a continuum, and it’s normal for you to move up and down that continuum on a daily basis, and maybe even, during Covid, on an hourly basis,” says Shand.

Through Covid, people have been asked to show resilience in the face of so many things that are out of their control, he says. Employers can play a big part in easing some of that weight for their employees. That starts with creating a space where hard conversations are comfortable. 

“Companies have a role in putting structures in place that mean people don’t need to rely on their individual resilience as much as they would otherwise have to. You have to normalise a conversation where people are prepared to come and tell you how they’re feeling, because broad-brush wellbeing initiatives during Covid haven’t actually worked as well as a lot of companies think.”

Simple exercises like opening internal meetings with discussions about the daily struggles of lockdowns, and learning to ask questions like “how can we help take some stress off you?” and “what do you need from us?”, help managers become comfortable opening the dialogue around mental wellbeing. Shand says Z has held All Hands sessions with the company doctor for employees to ask anything they would like about the medical side of Covid-19.

“We recognised that there were a lot of false facts around Covid-19 so we brought in experts over the period and have done a few All Hands with the company doctor, who answers open questions about Covid and what people should be thinking about, to give them that medical expertise.”

These tools have been essential to ensure employees are comfortable sharing how the pressure of working under these new conditions is affecting them. 

“It takes persistent and consistent leadership work to create an environment that supports wellbeing. At Z we work to normalise wellbeing conversations with our people leaders and build their capability to have them, and often what we focus on is just giving them the confidence to open up the dialogue about wellbeing.”

This open dialogue about the role of an employer in an individual’s wellbeing is something that must continue, says Shand. 

“I think there is something really powerful about an organisation that normalises wellbeing. We’re not having a new conversation with people about wellbeing, we’re using our existing commitments in a new context.”

Our rangatahi have a drive to learn: Vanessa Te Huia, deputy principal, Ōtorohanga College

In the turbulence of learning through lockdowns, our schools were given the mammoth task of changing basically everything about how they operated. As classes moved online and students were given a lot more self-directed learning time, teachers had to learn to teach remotely. For those students without the means to engage online, things were even more difficult.

At Ōtorohanga College, teachers were aware of many students who would be spending lockdowns in homes without internet or devices. 

“Our teaching staff spent months planning, setting online tasks, meeting via Zoom and Google Meet, dropping off hard packs of work, emailing, texting and ringing to check in on students and whānau,” says Vanessa Te Huia, deputy principal at Ōtorohanga College.  

Even for those children who did have access to the internet, lack of in-person social interaction was hard for students who were used to having that connection daily. A report by the University of Auckland found that students with larger, more connected families reported better overall health during 2020’s lockdowns than those with smaller families. The same study showed that students who had returned to school in levels three and two reported better health than those who continued to study from home. 

“Being motivated to engage remotely and the lack of social interaction were two common challenges [for students], but because of these challenges, when our students returned they had a sense of agency and were more driven,” says Te Huia. 

While working remotely worked for some students, others had to put some school work aside to help out around the house with childcare or work. Te Huia says while this was different to the school curriculum that would have otherwise been taught, many of these lockdown experiences still provided crucial learning opportunities for students. 

“[Some families] shared that their child had been engaged in different types of learning experiences that sat outside of what our teachers set, such as working on projects on the farm, caring for siblings, completing chores and cooking for the whānau. Although these types of learning experiences may not fit a traditional model, it is learning that strongly aligns to the key competencies being actioned in real life.”

Sarah Cowie says it will be essential to keep a close eye on how our tamariki experience the next few years as we emerge from Covid restrictions. She says the effects of these past two years on young people might not be immediately obvious. 

“Particularly teenagers at the end of school, students who are coming into university – those critical points where you would usually be doing a lot of face-to-face social interaction, but a lot of that has shifted online. The situation that we’re experiencing is very out of the ordinary for us and it will potentially have some long-term effects on our behaviour.”

Caitlin Day (left) and business partner Sophie Lax at Unity Studios (Image: Andy Day)

Exercise for mental as well as physical health: Caitlin Day – pelvic floor physiotherapist and pilates instructor

Starting the most recent Auckland lockdown with a three-month-old baby and a three-year-old meant Caitlin Day, pelvic floor physiotherapist and pilates instructor, felt far busier than usual – despite the fact she couldn’t see her patients. Her business, Unity Studios, a pilates studio and physiotherapy clinic, had to close its doors and Day’s time became consumed with childcare. 

As someone for whom fitness is a large part of her job, she put aside time each day to go for a run – something she said was hugely beneficial to her mental health as well as physical. 

“I got back into running when lockdown started and I thought it was really great because I had my husband at home and I could pop out every day and get my run in, which would help with my wellbeing.”

She says putting time aside to exercise – even just a few minutes each day – can really help people who are struggling with the feelings of languish that many of us experience in lockdowns.

“Whether it be lengths in the pool or going to the park and doing some bodyweight exercises, something that I’m really big on is trying to find out what my clients love and fitting it into their day and making it achievable.”

The mental health benefits of exercise have been proven by multiple studies – a report from the University of Vermont said just 20 minutes of physical activity can create mood benefits lasting for up to 12 hours. And it doesn’t have to be strenuous – in fact, Day says taking it easy is better than going too hard, too fast.

“My number one advice for my clients is always get 10 minutes of exercise every day – that’s enough to get the physical benefits of the endorphins and the heart rate increase, and all of that is usually achievable. I ran every day and increased my pace and distance too quickly and injured myself, which is absolutely what I tell my clients not to do.”

According to the Mental Health Foundation, everything from walking to the shops to mowing the lawns can count as physical activity, so setting aside that time to exercise daily doesn’t have to be an ordeal.

When lockdowns are over and the world has returned to its pre-Covid normality, Day hopes exercise and physical health stays a priority for people. 

“As a health professional who works in exercise, I’m really passionate about exercise for physical and mental wellbeing. My tips are usually about finding a way to fit exercise into your day for all the physical benefits and for mental health as well.”

Natalie Vincent (Image: Supplied)

Natalie Vincent, Ngā Tāngata Microfinance Trust general manager

Ngā Tāngata Microfinance Trust works with low-income families to help them get out of high-interest debt cycles. General manager Natalie Vincent says the pandemic has exacerbated the financial problems that these New Zealanders face.

“More than half of our clients report that the pandemic has had a direct effect on their household finances, causing job losses, reduced hours, increased living costs and additional stress.”

For those living with uncertain financial futures, lockdown pushed the gap between rich and poor further apart. Schemes set up to help people purchase products in instalments were used to buy groceries by many families in need, and Vincent says this put our already financially vulnerable population even more at risk.

“The most significant change has been the increase in people using buy now, pay later services for essential living expenses. A third of our current clients report using buy now, pay later regularly; 24% report using the service to purchase groceries.”

A University of Auckland report from 2020 showed many students were worried about their family’s financial situation, leading to poorer health in our young people, and there were reports of massive increases in families relying on food banks during Covid lockdowns.

“It’s simple math: less money coming in, same or more expenses going out, leaves you in deficit week after week. This deficiency creates a spiral of unsustainable debt,” says Vincent. “Our clients do exceptionally well managing a budget and making their money stretch – but handling your finances when there simply is not enough to go around is stressful and unsustainable.”

Moving forward, Vincent says we need to start having more confronting conversations about financial poverty in New Zealand, and empower each other to reach out to the services that are there to help with financial planning.

“Over the past year we have had a 34% increase in applications for debt-relief loans and accompanying financial capability support. This tells us there is a significantly greater need in the community.”

Vincent hopes the pressures of the pandemic can help break down the stigma around talking about money issues.

“We are encouraging people to get help with their budget, plan safe spending over the holidays and avoid heading into the new year with unmanageable debt. There is no wrong door to knock on for free support and advice.”

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