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An especially difficult aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the journey through this episode is so long – and it’s bound to feel even lengthier as the dreary days of winter arrive.

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This fall and winter, advisors and their teams across Canada will be working through the colder, shorter days with additional pandemic-driven mental health challenges, including the probability of less in-person socializing and more negative news. That makes it more important than ever for advisors and staff to take care of themselves emotionally.

“Our mental health affects absolutely everything,” says Natasha Knox, founder and financial planner at Pax Financial Planning and Education Inc. in New Westminster, B.C. “It affects our physical health, probably to a degree that we’re only now beginning to appreciate. It affects our judgment, which as advisors is absolutely critical. It affects our recommendations, but it also affects our ability to be present for our clients, to be calming and to be there for them – [and a mental health problem] is definitely one of those things that can escalate if it does not get addressed.”

Ms. Knox says she keeping her mental health in check by limiting the amount of COVID-19 news she consumes and the time she spends on social media. She also finds it helpful to get outside, even for 10 minutes and during bad weather, and to maximize time spent outside by parking her car in the furthest spot in the lot when running errands. After years of resistance, she has given mindfulness a chance, too.

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“Advisors need to be aware of what they’re bringing into the room with them,” she says.

An especially difficult aspect of the pandemic is that the journey through this episode is so long – and it’s bound to feel even lengthier as the dreary days of winter arrive.

Dr. Alex Melkumian, a financial psychotherapist and founder of Financial Psychology Center in Los Angeles as well as a member of the Financial Therapy Association’s board of directors along with Ms. Knox, says that a person’s initial psychological response to a stressful situation is one of fight, flight or freeze, “but it’s a response that we can’t sustain for a long time. Either it gets resolved, the stressor goes away and your psychological and emotional response dials down, or it morphs into a more traumatic response.”

At this point, some advisors may be experiencing that more traumatic response. Even those who have fared reasonably well throughout the year may be facing what Dr. Melkumian describes as “financial survivor’s guilt,” having witnessed clients and others around them struggling with lost jobs and financial hardship. That may be combined with “compassion fatigue,” after spending months helping clients manage the financial impacts of COVID-19.

To cope through the coming months of grey skies, early nights and snow, Dr. Melkumian emphasizes that it’s important for advisors to remind themselves that they’re not alone going through this situation. He adds that it can help to have conversations with other advisors, sharing concerns and frustrations.

“It normalizes some of your experiences when you hear somebody else validate them because they went through the same things,” he says.

Advisors’ firms can be a source of support as well. Some are investing in creative mental health-focused initiatives to assist advisors and their teams.

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Brent Allen, senior vice president of financial services distribution at IG Wealth Management in Winnipeg, says his organization implemented a “need a day, take a day” policy earlier this year that offers 10 “wellness days” a year beyond sick days, with additional days off added from time to time – most recently on the Friday of Mental Illness Awareness Week in early October.

Combined with flexible work schedules, the extra time away from work is designed to help staff manage responsibilities, including homeschooling children and caring for loved ones, Mr. Allen says.

Through “multiple levels of communications,” IG Wealth Management is also sharing information with advisors and employees about employee benefits, including the employee assistance program, as well as topics such as nutrition and mental health. The firm has partnered with a national fitness company to run virtual classes hosted by certified trainers.

Furthermore, it’s making mental health a key focus at its now virtual leadership conference in November, planning live question and answer sessions for advisors and employees focused on mental health topics, with the option to sign in anonymously.

“It’s important for us as leaders to demonstrate that we care, that we’re open and that we’re supportive, because leadership is not about titles. Leadership is about doing the right thing at the right time and making sure that people are taken care of,” Mr. Allen says.“If you’re setting the proper tone and have the right approach and empathy toward everyone on the team, they will tend to pass that down throughout the entire organization.”

Carol Lynde, president and chief executive at Bridgehouse Asset Managers in Toronto, has been working to equip advisors with information on mental health for years through her organization’s Mental Health & The Financial Advice Relationship program.

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That initiative now includes a webinar series for advisors, addressing topics such as “Communication and Self-Care in a Screen-Based World” and “Boundaries, Balance & Burnout.”

Whether it’s through exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques or other strategies, she says advisors and their teams “need to take care of their own mental asset” before they can help clients effectively.

“Check in with peers; debrief with your team, with colleagues, with other advisors,” she says, echoing Dr. Melkumian’s advice. Most importantly, she says advisors should become more comfortable with saying the word “no.”

“Sometimes, we get ourselves into situations because we say ‘yes’ too often. We have to understand our own capacity and make sure that we’re not agreeing to unreasonable deadlines and requests that just add more pressure to a time that’s already very, very stressful,” Ms. Lynde says.

“We all have buckets of mental health. Some mornings, your bucket is full, and other mornings it may not be so full. … We need to be aware of that and know that maybe I need to take a break. Maybe I need to take a day off. Maybe I need to be a little more flexible with my time today. Maybe I need to get outside more often and get some sun [because] we’re going to be in this for a period of time.”

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