2020 has been extremely challenging for many business owners, both financially and in terms of their mental wellbeing. The Southland Chamber of Commerce (SCOC) was already working with its 4,500 members to encourage workplace wellbeing within local businesses. During lockdown it galvanised this work with a series of regular wellbeing webinars designed to boost members' physical and mental wellbeing.
The SCOC made sure to provide its members with solid information about financial support and lockdown subsidies, says the Chamber's Events & Marketing Manager, Michelle McSoriley. "I also felt we needed to address how people were coping during this time. Our wellbeing webinars morphed out of that."
The live webinars were held fortnightly on Zoom, in the evening when more people could attend after work. They were run by SCOC members and included sessions on nutrition, chiropractic therapy, resilience and financial health. The format included a presentation, a Q&A session and the sending-out of support material as a follow-up. Around 30 to 40 people attended each webinar, and included a good cross section of SCOC business members, student members and non-members, says Michelle.
The webinars offered SCOC members a way of connecting during the lockdown, says Michelle. "They were important because they gave our community some tools that were relevant, which they could implement straight away. They also gave them access to local people who could support them, going forward, after attending the webinars."
Having access to this sort of information was crucial to small business owners, she adds. "They don’t have a lot of other contacts outside the likes of ourselves, to get them through this difficult period."
The pandemic exacerbated what was already proving to be a difficult year for Southland retailers and other businesses. There is ongoing uncertainty over 2,500 jobs at the Tiwai smelter, the demolition of 43 buildings in Invercargill's CBD as part of a $100m redevelopment, and high-profile leadership tensions at Invercargill City Council.
The SCOC had already shown "great leadership in the workplace wellbeing space," says Sport Southland's Healthy Families Invercargill Systems Innovator Laura Faherty. Healthy Families Invercargill is a Ministry of Health-funded initiative that works collaboratively with local leaders and organisations to help people live healthier lives in 10 communities across New Zealand.
"It’s been great to walk alongside an organisation like the Chamber who really 'get' the role that businesses can play in supporting not just their employees' wellbeing, but the wellbeing of the communities around them."
Healthy Families Invercargill team has worked with SCOC on wellbeing initiatives for around four years. It includes the establishment of a 'Healthy Families Invercargill Workplace Wellbeing Award' as part of the Westpac Southland Business Excellence Awards, which are run by the SCOC. Healthy Families Invercargill also writes an article on wellbeing with a local context for the SCOC’s monthly newsletter. The two organisations are also working together on a comprehensive survey into local business attitudes towards workplace wellbeing.
2021 brings new challenges
SCOC will use the findings from the survey to see what else it can provide its members in 2021, says Michelle. Some face-to-face workshops on mental wellbeing are likely to be offered, for example.
2020 may soon be over, but 2021 will bring new challenges, she adds. "I still believe it's really important that we continue to give our members and community the opportunity for support in that space. In fact, it's arguably more important than anything else out there.
"As much as we all want to move into 2021 and put this year behind us, there’s still going to be a lot of difficulties and unknowns and a bit of fallout still to happen, within the next couple of years. So we need to be doing everything we can to support those members in need."
"It's important to remember to take care of yourself."
Meanwhile, SCOC has been on its own workplace wellbeing journey. The team of seven is small and close-knit but, says Michelle, they still face challenges. These include working in a CBD arcade with no natural light, and dealing with tough issues as well as members who may be upset or distraught.
"We’re really lucky that we all get on so well but there can be a whole array of things going on. We need good support and systems in place to work well."
Prior to COVID-19, the SCOC team had started to talk about giving staff flexible working hours and the chance to work from home when needed.
"When COVID hit we were forced to work from home but, after lockdown, we continued to implement flexible working hours and days at home. We have also ensured we have the right support and access to any wellbeing service providers that we might need, such as counselling."
"It’s been a very difficult year in our community, so we need to stay upbeat and in a good space ourselves, to support all the negative things that are going on at the moment."
When it comes to workplace wellbeing, it's important that the Southland Chamber of Commerce is seen as a leader, says Michelle. "You’ve got to be not just talking about it but actually be doing it as well. It’s important to remember to take care of yourself."