Gym staff didn’t sign up to be frontline workers in a global pandemic, yet as clubs reopen, this is where they’re finding themselves.
The way they’re supported through the next six months to a year of trading will determine not only their health and the health of colleagues, but also potentially the health and wellbeing of members, so getting this right is a vital piece of the reopening jigsaw puzzle.
This care needs to extend beyond PPE to the mental health and wellbeing of staff – something rarely given attention.
Recent research by Leisure-net showed that nearly 60 per cent (59.6) of members are missing motivation by and interaction with gym staff, so our teams are clearly a major reason why many people pay for gym membership and their welfare is of the utmost importance to the business.
Background – mental health: state of the nation
In the UK, the Office For National Statistics (ONS) asks around 1,500 people how anxious and happy they are on a scale of one to 10 as part of its regular update on wellbeing.
At the end of 2019 the proportion of people registering high levels of anxiety stood at 21 per cent, but between 20-30 March 2020, this had increased to around half of the adult population (49.6 per cent), or more than 25 million people.
Of those, 8.5 million were most concerned about their wellbeing, including boredom, loneliness and stress. Furthermore, the number of people reporting a low happiness score had more than doubled from 8.4 per cent in the final quarter of 2019 to 20.7 per cent in late March.
This rise in anxiety and stress will be reflected in both staff and members returning to the gym and operators must be alert to this.
Here, Dr Dane Vishnubala, GP, chief medical advisor at Active IQ and co-writer of its Mental Health Awareness award, shares insights to help operators mentally prepare staff for their return to work and welcoming back members.
“No-one’s sure how things will feel after a long break from the norm, but operators must be prepared for potentially increased levels of anxiety and concern among some staff and members as they take steps back to the gym,” says Vishnubala. “Some staff in particular may be worried they’re going to be working in the frontline while the pandemic remains a threat and also, bridging the gap between working remotely or having been on furlough will have its challenges when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.”
Prior to opening, operators are advised to review their mental health training and awareness policies and look to access online training or refresher courses – there are plenty to choose from, including those run by charities such as Mental Health First Aid England and Time to Change, and free resources from Active IQ, which include 11 CPD courses in relation to mental health awareness and first aid and a number specifically dealing with the COVID-19 situation.
“Mental ill-health among colleagues will be best spotted by colleagues who work closely together, so train a mixture of staff: with many resources online and free, there’s no limit to how many can upskill,” he says.
Mental Health Champions
“Implementation of mental health awareness and first aid is best through a team of Mental Health Champions,” says Vishnubala. “These champions should be trained in mental health first aid so they can spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and provide help and signposting.
“The ideal mental health champion will be a good communicator, empathetic and respectful of confidentiality. They will also be well-respected and trusted by their peers.
“They need not be particularly senior but do need to be able to communicate feedback and suggestions clearly to management teams and other senior staff.
“I’d aim to have one mental health champion for each department on-site to ensure all colleagues have someone familiar to them in this role. Ideally have them trained before the doors open again, so they’re ready to speak to colleagues who have concerns. You can also consider offering a video link chat prior to people returning.”
Acknowledging that many employees could be affected by the impact of COVID-19, Vishnubala suggests running an online Staff Support Forum group for six to eight weeks after the site returns.
“This format can give a welcome outlet for staff to discuss their concerns and ask questions,” he says. “Use familiar technology to limit any learning curve to access it – private Facebook groups can work well, or you may prefer to use Slack, which is nice and secure.
“I’d recommend a small team of Mental Health Champions manage the forum and post regular, thought-provoking content that engages the staff and makes them reflect. You may like to start with insight and tips learned from your training, post a comment around how they feel and invite others to share as well, to invite conversation. You could also share trusted links to helpful resources to engage people actively in the forum.”
Returning members may also have concerns and worries. Weighing up their wish to return to exercise against their underlying fear that it may not be safe to do so could cause conflicting emotions. They may also have been personally affected by coronavirus among family and friends, as Vishnubala points out. “The impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown can manifest in different ways among different people. From those who have lost loved ones and may be suffering survivor’s guilt, to those who feel shallow because they’re well but worrying while others have far greater problems, the range of emotions is vast.
Lifestyle changes including losing their job, being on furlough or struggling with life being on hold also cause anxiety.
“Many people will use the gym to release tension and cabin fever, but some may target a tough workout to punish themselves.
“Mental health awareness-trained staff should be alert to this and if they see any unusual behaviour among members must have the confidence to start a conversation to check in with them.
“If in doubt, start a conversation with members you’re are concerned about,” advises Vishnubala. “With trained staff and mental health champions, operators are perfectly placed to lend initial support and signpost people on for additional support if necessary.
“As well as this direct approach, operators should create a positive environment to show mental health is valued. Posters explaining that help is available, mental health messages in your social media content and displaying local mental health charity materials will show members you are ready to listen and help.
“Be clear about the ways people can seek help confidentially – perhaps a dedicated email address or a discreetly placed help box where people can drop in a request for contact with a mental health champion.”
Warning signs to look out for:
- Sudden emotional outbursts
- Feeling anxious or unhappy all the time
- Lacking motivation or energy
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Sudden weight-loss or weight-gain
- Becoming unusually quiet or withdrawn
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Drinking or smoking excessively