Managing operations and staff mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Gail is a resident of Monkami's Supported Independent Living services.

While we are constantly reminded of how ‘unprecedented’ the COVID-19 pandemic is for businesses to operate, Monkami has shown the vital role that business continuity plans still play.


The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a significant threat to the way businesses operate, especially those in the health and community sector. It has become apparent that trying to accurately anticipate vaccine rollout timelines, lockdown restrictions and the potential threat of new variants, is an exercise in futility. 

One organisation that quickly identified the significant threat COVID-19 posed was Monkami Centre Inc. 

Established as a charity with the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights, Monkami acts as an advocate and defender for people with a disability. With Chief Executive Officer Jillian Christie at the helm, supported by GM, Karina Hogan, the exceptional team at Monkami frequently exceed their own expectations and supported those who need it most. 

Jillian, with a nursing background and prior experience during the SARS outbreak, observed the evolving COVID-19 situation and spread throughout Taiwan during the 2019 Christmas holiday period. Noticing the sheer speed at which the virus spread, Jillian made the call during early January of 2020 to prepare and create a pandemic management plan for the business. 

Also in early 2020, Monkami became members of the Victorian Chamber and swiftly signed up to take part in the Mental Health Essentials program – a course offering tailored advice, action plans, training and resources to help businesses create mentally healthy workplaces. What Monkami learned in the program quickly proved to be of great value moving forward.

Monkami Chief Executive Officer, Jillian Christie
Monkami Chief Executive Officer, Jillian Christie


Planning in a pandemic 

The Monkami team understood early on that a pandemic would demand significant changes to working arrangements, and these new arrangements will introduce health and safety risks for employees. 

As with any infectious illness, standard health and safety risk assessment and controls were applied.  

They delivered general advice to employees, such as staying at home if they are sick, covering their coughs and sneezes, washing their hands regularly and any unwell employees with compatible symptoms (to those of the declared pandemic disease) were sent home immediately. 

Foreseeing the impact the pandemic could have on absenteeism, Monkami introduced stringent infection control measures in the workplace by providing workplace training and making sure they had an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).  

By prioritising essential services, adjusting work practices, and managing staffing arrangements to maintain business continuity, the team ensured that staff took all practicable steps to ensure they didn’t do anything to increases the risk to the health and safety of themselves or others. 

People leaders 

In addition to the profound and global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our personal, economic, and social lives, COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on individuals both emotionally and psychologically. 

Mental health, like physical health, is a continuum. Regardless of whether this is due to personal or professional circumstances, where possible, the manager’s role is to recognise and respond to early warning signs of poor mental health. Monkami knows all too well the impact that stresses can have on how we feel, think and behave. The further existential threat and anxiety of living within a ‘hotspot’ can often be compounded by the impacts of social isolation and the loss of social supports during mandated lockdowns.  

Jillian understood how promoting a culture of support, empathy and respect was part of her role as a leader and teammate. Through constant updates and sharing human experiences to staff, the team created an atmosphere of safety and helped the team identify stress and anxiety while also gaining clarity on thoughts, feelings and experiences. 

Monkami created an environment that made it normal and acceptable for people to not be okay, to make mistakes, to struggle. 

Contemporary leaders understand that they aren’t the ones with all the answers, but they’re the ones with the questions. When employers aim at prevention wherever possible, as well as support and treat emerging or pre-existing issues, communication and compassion become key.  

Even though Monkami was dealing with issues needing immediate intervention, the leadership team gave themselves time to think, perceive and consider how the team are working before reacting - then showing support for everyone in the team, listening to them, being present, and nudging  the culture in the right direction. 

The trick for a ‘people leader’ is to enable everyone to fulfil their career aspirations in a way that enables the organisations to achieve its goals. The joy, and at times, frustration of leading and managing people is that they are all different, and it is understanding these individual differences and how each person will respond to different styles of leadership and management that will give the people leader the greatest chance of success. 

Confidence is key 

The success of any transition in the workplace rests heavily on the effectiveness of communication with employees both in the workplace and those working at home. 

The more employees are involved in decision making, the more ownership is felt and the better they exercise accountability. By providing staff with opportunities to contribute to decisions, they helped create a consultative approach - building self-reliance.   

From a psychological point of view, maintaining a level of personal control over circumstances is a well-spring of mental health. When workers feel powerless in the face of their circumstances such as COVID-19, it drains motivation and results in declining productivity. 

A top-down approach has been influential in facilitating commitment across Monkami and removed the stigma associated with mental illness. Monkami has demonstrated how a mentally healthy workplace creates a visible commitment from the leadership to promote healthy practices, prevent risks to mental health and support early intervention and recovery of workers. 

More information 

The Victorian Chamber’s webinar series on Mental Health During COVID-19 has been recorded and is available to view on our website.  

We also have amassed tailored Health, Safety and Wellbeing information for employers to take advantage of during the COVID-19 pandemic. More information for employers is available on our COVID-19 resources page for businesses. 

If you, as an employer or an employer’s representative feel unsure about what your organisation has in place or would like help in putting a plan in place, please do not hesitate to contact the Victorian Chamber’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing (HSW) team on 03 8662 5196. 

To register your interest in the Mental Health Essentials program, please visit the program’s webpage, where you can find more information about the program and register your interest.  

The Mental Health Essentials program is supported by WorkSafe Victoria through the WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund. 

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