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Learning to Stop, Look and Listen

by Alexandra Matthews

two nurses caring for a mental health patient

This year’s R U OK? day feels quite different to previous years, but there’s never been a more important time to ask the question, and to stop and listen to the answer.

Previously at Six Degrees Executive, we have used this day to stop and make a conscious effort to connect with our peers. Sometimes having conversations that are a little more uncomfortable than normal or connecting with someone you don’t always chat to in the lunchroom. Traditionally it has provided us the opportunity to step back and look at the way we communicate with one another and with ourselves, and to dig a little deeper with the way we connect. 

However, this year won’t just be a little bit different, it will be vastly different to previous years. From the most obvious: we are working from our home offices, kitchen tables, couches and even ironing boards in our bedrooms, to the less obvious differences like missing the simple connection of a coffee in a café.

At the start of the pandemic, difficult decisions were made within our business, much like in other organisations. We transitioned to become a remotely run business in the space of two weeks, we no longer enjoy the same team drink and chat at the end of the week, and we are limited to virtual ways of interacting as a team. But somehow, the SDE Family still remains connected and with a strong sense of unity. And I am confident that we will not only continue to ask each other, “Are you okay?” but that we will also be listening to the answers to ensure the wellbeing of our workmates. It is an exercise we often do in meetings, asking the person next to you how they are and listen to their answer for 2 minutes uninterrupted – it is a lot harder than you think!  

Recruitment during a pandemic 

The recruitment industry is in a unique position when it comes to times of crises. We are provided the opportunity to have an insight of businesses and industries from the inside – where they are winning and where they might be struggling. We also see this from the other side: the surge of job seekers now on the market. COVID-19 has seen the unemployment rate in Australia hover at nearly 9%, meaning that the job market is inundated with people who have lost their job unexpectedly.

From those just starting out to those well established in their careers, redundancy is never easy. Dealing with the many personal stories of how this pandemic is affecting people’s lives every day, their relationships, their ability to stay positive can be one of the hardest things about being a recruitment consultant. We get to deliver the exciting news when people are offered a contract for their dream role, but we also speak to people during some of their more challenging moments.  

Whilst I am currently the Head of People & Culture at Six Degrees Executive, I started my recruitment career as a consultant so I understand intimately the emotion involved when advising someone that they have been unsuccessful in securing a role or that their skillset and experience are outside the requirements of a specific role. It doesn’t get easier, and we are innately aware of the role we play and impact we can have on people’s lives, particularly their professional life.  

Not only is our team dealing with the hardships of the current job market, but the recruitment industry itself has been downsized by 36% since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Our consultants are working in an unstable job market, for an unstable job market. The double-edged sword for a career path that only certain people are built for.  

It would be easy for us to forget to ask each other how we are going in our daily interactions, especially since we are a team of people who are accustomed to asking that of everyone else. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of such a simple question, “Are you okay?” 

Top down, bottom up and inside out 

A few months ago, in a meeting of the Executive Leadership Team, one of our co-founders mentioned that his daughter had the next day off school, “for a mental health day,” he said. No one in the room had to ask why these school children were getting a day off school, instead there was unanimous agreeance about the importance of the day, and the message it sent to the next generation – Mental Health needs to be prioritised. And so two weeks later, Six Degrees Executive implemented our first ever National Mental Health day. A day to spend doing whatever you believed would have a positive impact on your own mental health. Whether that be visiting family, playing golf, exercising, spending time with the kids or pets, cooking, anything that provided the space and opportunity to decompress and recharge.

During a COVID specific pulse survey in early May we had asked our people how they were, and they were honest in their responses. This pandemic was impacting them all in different ways, and people were fatigued, the notion of ‘living at work’ rang true for many. Providing them with the opportunity to step away, was not only welcomed and well-spent, but it sent a clear message that regardless of what was happening in the market, our people and their wellbeing would always be our priority and at the heart of who we are as business. 

Four months on, we are still living with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been six months since our Melbourne team left the building and our Sydney and Brisbane teams are still predominantly working from home with the ever-present threat of an outbreak. Many like myself, have spent the last 11 weeks juggling the demands of work and home-schooling, some of our team whom live independently haven’t connected with another human without exercising or visiting the supermarket for nearly 6 weeks, and for others the feeling of ‘Groundhog Day’ has really started to set in. As a leadership group we knew it was time. Time to reboot, refresh and regroup, and next week will see us do this together with our National Mental Health Day 2.0.  

Beyond our Mental Health days, we know the adverse effects the pandemic has had, and continues to have, a significant toll not only on our team but on their families too. We have encouraged our team to take leave if required, adjust or reduce their hours, and speak to their Manager if they are feeling overwhelmed due to their personal circumstances.

To better support our extended SDE Family holistically during these challenging times, we have extended our Employee Assistance Program to immediate family members (partners / spouses / children), and also offer weekly virtual personal training and meditation sessions that they are invited to attend, each run by qualified coaches.

Long-term effects of short-term plans 

One of the most important things for me as we move forward to the future, and our journey out of the pandemic is that we embrace our learnings from this time. It has been said that, “any deep crisis is an opportunity to make your life extraordinary in some way.” And this is our opportunity to define our new extraordinary.  

We have already started the conversation on what the future might look like and accepted that our offices, teams and ways of working have forever changed. They may never look or operate the same again, and has we define our ‘new normal’ it is more important than ever that we are listening to our people and ensuring their wellbeing remains central to our decision making. The pandemic sped up our leap into a remote and virtual world, and we have learnt so much about ourselves and each other. We learnt that our team was agile with the deployment of some into new growth industries, we uncovered hidden talents and skills (who knew our SC&E consultant could code), we met pets and children, we enjoyed the lack of commute and dinner time with our loved ones,  but we also realised just how much we missed being in the company of each other. How do we combine all of this to ensure post-COVID Six Degrees maintains culture as its superpower? That is our next challenge. We will continue to embrace our motto #bravenotperfect, and we will keep asking and listening to our people.

Never have I appreciated more the opportunity to work with such a courageous and values focussed leadership group. Headed up by our CEO Suzie McInerney, and with the full support of our Founding Directors and ELT, they have had to make some tough decisions over the last 6 months, but they have continued to prioritise the wellbeing of the team, and have always been open to any suggestion on how we can better support them. They encouraged and fostered a culture that is open and vulnerable, and understood how individualised the impacts of the pandemic were being experienced. Importantly, they asked the questions, and were not afraid to listen to the answers. We will come out of this different, but we will also be stronger, galvanised and ready for the next challenge.

This health crisis isn’t over, and we will continue to experience the aftermath for years to come, so remember to ask people if they are okay today, but also ask it tomorrow and the days after too. When the day ends, the sentiment doesn’t. 

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