Telum Talks to... Elizabeth Rowlinson, Corporate and Individual Mental Health Advisor and Counsellor, The Fortitude Partners
Telum caught up with Elizabeth Rowlinson on the current situation in Hong Kong as it undergoes its 5th wave of COVID-19 restrictions including intensive ‘work from home’ policies and the impact it is having on the general mental health of her clients.
Before we start, can you please give our readers some context by sharing a bit of your background and your business?
Through working for Mergermarket and two of the Big 4 accounting firms, I realised what I enjoyed most was the people - getting to know them and understanding what motivates them, so I decided to make a change and went back to studying for my Masters in Mental Health Counselling. My business, The Fortitude Partners, very much combines my prior business background and my current counselling career as I provide both corporate advisory services and individual counselling. My corporate advisory services include providing businesses with assistance in their mental wellness programmes. I help with strategy, planning, communications and execution. I know that my corporate clients appreciate my business background as these clients have been my clients for my entire career, whether they are a bank or other financial institution, a PR firm or other advisory firm. I help strategise what their corporate mental wellness needs are for their employees and I also provide onsite services. The onsite service is uniquely positioned to help busy employees with their mental wellness needs in a private, confidential and accessible setting.
At the time of this interview, the 3rd week of February, can you describe the situation Hong Kong faces, in your opinion?
Currently in Hong Kong, we are under strict social distancing measures and under a long period of ‘working from home’ (WFH). The majority of my clients have been WFH since the middle of January and many also have children, of whom have not returned to in-person school since that time either, social life has halted to a stop with the 6pm closure of restaurants as well. This 5th wave seems to be having a larger impact on the clients I am seeing compared to the previous waves.
What are some of the general topics people are discussing?
I am seeing many clients reporting they are not leaving their homes for extended periods of time. Many clients are inside Monday through Thursday or Friday. This concerns me as taking in natural light is beneficial for our mental health, reminds us of the world around us and that we are in fact connected to it. If we stay indoors, especially when living alone, our world can become quite myopic. As many may know, Hong Kong is famous for its small living spaces. Some clients are sleeping, working, eating, perhaps exercising in one small space without much or any face-to-face contact and it is taking its toll on people’s mental health.
Another area of focus, driven by the Hong Kong COVID situation is that of building relationships online. Both leaders and staff are looking to bridge gaps and make connections online, which can bring some challenges. With leadership, many are feeling they might not have the full picture of how their teams are doing. For team members, especially those who have just joined a new team, they are looking to develop new relationships with their colleagues and bosses as well as grappling with a steep learning curve that is impacted by being WFH and lacking the knowledge gained from hearing those around us. I will coach these individuals based on their specific situation, what suits their personality and working style best.
Outside of COVID, the topics range from relationships to other family-centred topics, work-related development and career coaching and personal development topics such as resilience, confidence building, anger management, etc. Even though the 5th wave in Hong Kong continues, so does life and all the different stressors we manage each day.
What can companies do to support their employees during this time?
If the organisation does not have a mental wellness programme active, they can create one - the one silver lining is that COVID is advancing the mental health discussion in Hong Kong exponentially. It is never too late to support our employees' mental health and setting up a programme will help for all topics, not just COVID-related!
If the organisation does not have a programme set up, I have been working with leaders on how to support their teams. It starts with ensuring we provide psychological safety. After that is understood and regularly established, the next step is to ensure an appropriate level of understanding and empathy is provided. There is no correct way to be handling this situation and we are all handling it differently. A manager who understands that without judgement is important.
All of what was discussed requires involvement, understandably. However, if someone was looking for some quick ideas or tips in order to stay mentally fit in general, what could they keep in mind?
Whether it is COVID lockdown or not, we all live busy lives which can bring challenges and stress.
I am an advocate of proactivity versus reactivity. I often use the physical health metaphor as it is very relevant and relatable. If one exercises regularly, continuing to do so is less of a challenge than exercising for the first time after an extended period of latency. Similarly, having the skills - knowing what exercises are good for us, enables us to exercise properly in order to achieve desired results. The concepts are similar to mental health. If we have relevant coping skills and we are deploying them when needed to properly manage life’s challenges, it can feel less difficult when we face these moments.
In addition to that, I also advocate for introspection. Regularly asking ourselves what role we played in an event or situation can be beneficial as we are the common denominator. We are also the only truly controllable factor. We have control and agency over what we say, what we do, how we behave and respond to others and certain situations.
Overall, I have great faith in my fellow person and think that understanding and empathy can go a long way. Hopefully we can give some to those around us and most importantly to ourselves!