Between business closures, adjusted hours, personal protective equipment (PPE) mandates and the never-ending scramble to stay updated on public health orders, COVID-19 has been a source of stress for us all, to say the least. As the global health pandemic continues to turn our city on its head, local businesses fight to stay afloat all while juggling mental health and the wellbeing of employees.
With the Government of Alberta’s Relaunch Strategy entering Phase 2 back in mid-June, local businesses have found themselves running to keep up with health guidelines. Retraining staff to return to a COVID-19 business environment, increasing sanitation practices and accounting for lagging revenue are only a few of the barriers entrepreneurs find themselves up against. For many local businesses, reopening comes after three months of stagnation and with a number of new challenges in tow.
Traci Bateman, co-founder of Bliss YogaSpa in Edmonton, is no stranger to running a clean ship; adjusting to COVID-19 prevention has caused little sweat for the local studio.
“We are comfortable with the health guidelines. We had medical grade sanitation prior to COVID-19, so really we only had to add the PPE and a few client protocols,” Bateman says.
The local spa and yoga studio has been adjusting to the “new normal” after being closed for three months. As a provider of wellness and personal services, the studio was given the green light to open in June with a number of restrictions in place. For staff returning to work, the studio they returned to was not the same one they had left three months earlier.
“We have structured our treatment provider shifts to full-time of 32 hours so as not to overwhelm them. Having to wear full PPE during treatments can be exhausting so we have provided several areas, including our yoga studio, where we encourage them to take off their coverings and decompress,” Bateman says.
The studio has also taken a number of measures to support employees, including free streaming yoga classes to help staff unwind.
While Bateman notes navigating COVID-19’s economic realities has not been without strain, they emphasize the importance of employers being there to support staff and creating opportunities for employees to have their issues heard.
“Our door is always open and we are here to help with their issues inside and outside of work.”
With businesses feeling the COVID-19 pinch, incorporating mental health and wellbeing practices and supports into the local economy is perhaps more imperative than ever before. Seeing a gap in community support for employers, The Storm Bison broke through the COVID-19 haze and stampeded into the region’s business scene.
“Like so many others at the time, I realized how fearful things were getting and how alone I suddenly felt in my own business,” Holly Carmichael, president of TruWood Artisans and founder of The Storm Bison says. “Where there was once collaboration and communication amongst businesses working together, suddenly there was silence from each other as well as from our clients. The silence was deafening. We decided early on that if ever there was a time to stay strong and band together for real and not waiver, it was now.”
Focused on creating support networks for local businesses, The Storm Bison reached out to fellow business owners through an online video campaign.
“Very quickly, business owners in the building and design community responded and we had a ‘herd’ of like-minded individuals to interpret the daily updates as a group,” Carmichael says. “Our name comes from the fact that bison, unlike many other animals who run from a storm, stand strong and face the storm head on in a group. This achieves two important things. They gain protection from the elements by staying together and the storm tends to pass quicker when you stand firm and let it pass, or better yet run through it as a group.”
Like a true herd of the beloved prairie giants, The Storm Bison has developed a robust business network that not only invigorates entrepreneurial pursuits, but further supports mental health through solidarity.
“We continued to encourage each other to stay the course, not give up, figure out what needed to be done in all aspects of our individual businesses, from marketing to creative ways of operating safely, to rebranding for some, to starting new collaborations within… and the list goes on.”
Jesse Tookey, president of Storm Appliance Inc. and a member of The Storm Bison, has experienced the ripples of COVID-19 firsthand. The family-owned appliance distributer is among the many in the building industry up against unique challenges facing those unable to work from home.
“Having technicians, artisans and trades working in homes can be differently stressful for homeowners than it was in the recent past. This can be mentally challenging for the in-home worker as well,” Tookey notes. “A sneeze used to mean there was dust or perhaps a pet allergy, now it can be a catalyst to a larger encounter if not managed properly.”
Tookey notes supporting employees and ensuring staff feel safe goes a long way to reduce work-related anxiety. “Allowing our employees the necessary time and tools to work safely in the office and in the field has proven an effective way for us to alleviate employee stresses relating to COVID-19.”
While the ongoing pandemic has certainly thrown a wrench in business operations, Tookey sees potential for improved industry standards surrounding the mental health of workers. The local entrepreneur expects COVID-19 to shake up business operations and improve communication between employers and employees.
“This all has had a dramatic effect on how employers must treat required time off. In the long run, this will be a benefit to employees’ mental health as they will feel less sheepish to approach an employer about sickness in their household than they used to be.”
Between adjusting working environments to safeguard against virus transmission and navigating mental health during a global health pandemic, there is no shortage of challenges for business owners. For The Storm Bison’s Holly Carmichael, having a reliable network to lean on is the key to not only surviving as an entrepreneur, but thriving as an individual.
“In high times of stress, we business owners usually just continue to push through, regardless of what that means to health and wellbeing. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we as The Storm Bison members have learned that we can lean on one another. Having likeminded people in your corner to remind you it is not only okay to take a break sometimes but necessary for peace of mind and productivity has been an incredible experience,” Carmichael reflects. “Without your physical health you have nothing. Without mental peace of mind, you and your business suffer. We have all learned to focus on what matters and what can be accomplished when we band together.”
Laughter, as it turns out, truly is the best medicine, according to Carmichael. While steering their businesses through COVID-19 economic realities is no easy feat, the group of entrepreneurs like to keep things light.
“Although this has been an extremely difficult time for us all, the best thing we have found is to interject humour into our internal newsletters alongside of serious topics and keep things light wherever possible. We also have the occasional Zoom meeting or in-person meeting where we gather to catch up and share insightful things we have learned over the years, have after-work drinks and get a few laughs in,” Carmichael shares. “This has connected us far more in the end than the fear that first brought us together.”
While COVID-19 hangs over the city, local entrepreneurs are paving the way forward with determination, compassion, and creativity. Where there is struggle there is opportunity for growth and as local business owners are showing us, COVID-19 is opening the door to long overdue discussions on workplace wellbeing.