Ensuring Staff Wellbeing and Psychological Health: Jamaica shares its experience
18th June 2021By the Human Resource Management and Development Division, Jamaica Customs Agency
The Jamaica Customs Agency considers its human capital to be its most valued resource and, as such, its staff has a place of pride within the Administration. In this article, the Human Resource Management and Development (HRMD) Division introduces some of the programmes it has developed to ensure staff wellbeing and psychological health.
Resilience, a person’s ability to bounce back from, grow and thrive during challenge, change, and adversity, is currently quite a buzzword. It is widely recognized that, while organizations might rely on managers to protect their staff from undue stress or personal risk, they also need to build employee resilience in order to function properly.
With just over 1,300 team members, here at the Jamaica Customs Agency (hereinafter “the Agency”) we recognize that the support needed to facilitate staff resilience cannot be provided using a “one-size-fits-all” approach. We have therefore developed a strong framework which guides the implementation of the relevant programmes while taking into account the realities of diversity.
Wellbeing and the psychological health framework
At the core of our staff resilience strategy is the development and management of a framework and associated structures to answer the needs identified through staff surveys and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analyses.
Over the years, and particularly in the last two and a half years, we have made significant progress in enhancing this framework, including a wide range of policies, programmes and initiatives supporting staff in four areas: spiritual, psychological, physical and social.
Religion and spiritual wellbeing are important to many of the employees of the Agency, whether or not they are practising Christians. Being cognizant of this fact, we create opportunities for those who wish to express their faith and pray as part of what we call a Spiritual Programme. Customary activities include the annual Christmas and Easter Services, as well as the Spiritual Wellness Fest. Staff are at liberty to pray as a team before they start the workday – an opportunity which many capitalize on weekly – and to practice their religion individually.
Staying connected to one’s spirituality is paramount in bringing harmony to life, and this is even more true in times of crises. During the pandemic, we organized online intercessory prayers, sermons and short commentaries on biblical texts under the theme “Covered in Crisis”. These sessions allowed practising and non-practising Christian employees to gather virtually and pray together for their colleagues, the organization, the nation, our leaders and the vulnerable in society.
The importance of psychological health and its impact on organizational success cannot be overstated. With this in mind, the Agency has established an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) through which employees and their immediate family members can seek and receive confidential counselling. All consultations are fully sponsored by the Agency.
The Agency saw an uptick in enrolment during the pandemic, which shows that some staff needed expert assistance to cope with grief and psychological issues. Group counselling sessions were held with teams that had been directly impacted by COVID-19. The objective was to provide them with a safe space where they could share their concerns and fears and find expert advice on how to cope.
To enhance the EAP, the Agency launched a Peer Support Network (PSN) consisting of a group of 30 employees from across the Agency who were trained to assist employees with accessing the counselling and other support initiatives provided by the Agency and other government bodies.
At the HRMD Division, we have also diversified our communication modalities to ensure that staff receive accurate information in a timely manner. Besides a quarterly magazine called HR Buzz, we developed bite-sized information e-mails called “Did you know” containing interesting news and/or advice presented in the form of infographics. As part of the “HR on Di Move” Programme, we visited the different Customs offices before COVID-19 hit the country to talk to employees concerning the benefits they can obtain, the code of conduct and other rules they must follow, and general ways in which the Agency can help them navigate their employment tenure. Through the Programme, staff members are given a chance to have their questions answered on the spot, receive clarity on a number of issues and use this as an opportunity to obtain a private consultation on personal matters with us. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, these “visits” have been replace by regular online conference calls.
The establishment of a special e-mail account (email@example.com) for employees to share their concerns and ideas during the pandemic was also a recent move. We were very deliberate about the name of the e-mail address which even became an Agency moniker over time – #jcacares.
As the Employee Work Arrangements were reviewed during the pandemic to facilitate telecommuting and curtail the spread of the virus, a number of staff were working from home. They were also given the option of arranging flexible work schedules to meet their employment and family obligations. This new way of living was found to be challenging for some staff, and they needed guidance to understand how to be productive, solve their own problems, resolve their conflicts, manage their own learning, and navigate through changes.
A specific HRMD COVID-19 Response Team was also set up within the HRMD Division to encourage staff engagement and interactions; and help to build positive virtual working relationships. Activities throughout the year took many forms. Additionally, online discussions were organized on various topics such as:
- Coping in COVID- 19: Preserving my Mental Health
- Surviving COVID-19 and the Hurricane Season
- Being Vigilant in COVID-19 and the Christmas Season
- The Balancing Act: Parenting, Home-schooling and Telecommuting
- Overcoming Domestic Violence: Finding your Safe Space.
Supervisors had to change the way that they supported employees. As some expressed difficulties in managing teams in a blended mode (remote and face-to-face working), a series of development sessions called Leading in the New Normal was implemented under the HRMPOWERMENT Programme. The objective was to enable supervisors to learn how to prioritize, improve communication and build better relationships with their team members in order to further appreciate their realities and provide the requisite support; as well as to motivate and create a safe working environment. Leading in the New Normal puts the spotlight on leading with empathy and paying attention to the wellbeing of staff. This is crucial in maintaining a psychologically healthy workforce, able to cope with the changing work environment. Fundamental to this is supervisors’ mental health, as one cannot properly lead without being aware of one’s own feelings and thoughts. Another key point to note is that Leading in the New Normal places emphasis on productivity, rather than accounting for the number of hours spent at in the office, and requires supervisors to adopt a new way of target setting in managing performance.
Another way of supporting staff morale is through the Employee Rewards and Recognition Programme. When employees feel appreciated, they usually perform better. Each year, several employees receive an award for the work they have accomplished in a specific area. In 2021, all employees received a plaque in recognition of their service in 2020, a period that we consider to be unprecedented times.
Creating a safe working environment is also key to preserving psychological health. Through the implementation of Anti-Sexual Harassment and Anti-Gender-Based Violence in the Workplace and Workplace Relationship Policies, and other related measures, the Agency ensures that all staff have access to equal opportunities in the workplace, and work in a safe, inclusive and respectful environment; free from discrimination, coercion, harassment and intimidation, and with impartiality on grounds of gender or sex.
On this last point, it is worth mentioning that the Agency’s Gender Action Plan (GAP) aims at ensuring that all employees understand gender issues and the importance of equality and equity as well as fostering the adoption of gender mainstreaming, which is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the policies and programmes of an institution. The GAP identifies the areas where behavioural change is necessary and the guidelines and policies to be introduced to engender such a change, and minimize gender stereotypes and exclusion. It presents the use of sex-disaggregated data to reform existing policies and inform new procedures and explains how to conduct sensitization and awareness-raising sessions with staff. As part of the GAP implementation process, an assessment of the Administration is to be conducted using the WCO Gender Equality Organizational Assessment Tool (GEOAT).
For each policy and programme, standard operating procedures, in other words step-by-step instructions, have been developed, and a dedicated committee has been set up to oversee their implementation and provide direction when needed. The HRMD Division obviously also has a big role to play in monitoring worksites and ensuring that the policies are enforced. Based on visits and observations, recommendations are made to ensure that the best working conditions are provided for staff.
Under its Physical Wellbeing Programme, the Agency offers its staff the opportunity to participate in physical activities, including the Agency’s own initiative, called #Customsmoves, -an aerobics and strength training programme. To have an effective programme, professional trainers were hired. The Agency also actively encourages staff to participate in the National Netball and Football league competitions, and 5K runs. It covers all the costs incurred and offer participants some flexibility in their work schedules to train and participate. During the peak of the pandemic, the exercise sessions were moved online as government restrictions prohibited gatherings.
Each year, the Agency dedicates an entire month to the concept of wellness. The theme of 2020 was: “Nutrition: Eat Right, Bite by Bite”. Weekly educational courses led by medical practitioners and mental health experts were conducted online with the aim of giving employees the right information about what to eat and how to boost their immune system. In addition, staff were invited to participate in a “Garden to Plate Challenge” and to a “Recipe Challenge” to close out the activities of the month.
In 2019, the Month of Wellness was observed under the theme “Safeguarding your Mental Health in the Workplace”. Activities were implemented in partnership with our health insurance provider and included health screenings, with a mobile van visiting all Customs offices.
To bolster the wellbeing of our employees and to enhance the feeling of safety in the work environment, we have trained some of our employees in First Aid and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), and also as safety wardens. These individuals act as first responders in the event of accidents at the workplace.
The Agency intends to establish an Occupational Health Monitoring and Surveillance programme as a proactive risk-based approach to managing health amongst employees. Hearing, lung function, heart health, blood, physical fitness and vision will be tested, among other things. This will enable the rapid identification of health risks and allow medical and psychological issues to be treated at an early stage.
The Agency is known for playing an active role in the social life of its employees. Over the years it has organized several social gatherings such as an annual Sports Day, a Family Fun Day, the Christmas Party and the Customs Week. These events give staff an opportunity to bond with each other and “let their hair down”. They go a long way in boosting staff morale.
During the pandemic, social gatherings being prohibited, the Agency organized an online fund-raising event to support a community outreach effort and adapted all of the Customs Week activities to an online format, including the musical competition (“Sound Clash”) which in 2021 featured the Customs Chief Executive Officer and the two Deputies.
While we cannot host a birthday party for each member of staff, we send an electronic birthday card to all employees on their birthday. Special calendar events are usually celebrated as well, such as International Men’s and Women’s days, in a bid to engender a culture of appreciation for matters relating to gender awareness and sensitivity. These activities also help to foster a spirit of camaraderie and fun amongst employees.
Towards Human Experience Management
At the HRMD Division, we are fully cognizant of the fact that the success of the Agency’s operations depends on its human resources. Therefore, our key aim is to make the great HR reset by transitioning from Human Resource Management to Human Experience Management, an expression which refers to an employee-centric approach to human resource functions. Gone are the days where employee behaviour and performance were influenced by single factors such as pay. The idea is to proactively listen to employees to understand how they feel or think about things such as career progression and teams, and to put healthcare and wellbeing at the heart of the Agency’s priorities in order to get the most out of each employee.
The objective is to continue building resilience in employees, empowering them to “bounce forward” from a crisis and to adapt quickly to the changing environment in which they are required to operate and deliver an essential national service.