Miroslava Vavrecanova with her five-year-old daughter, Sophia, who started school during 2020.
Miroslava Vavrecanova with her five-year-old daughter, Sophia, who started school during 2020.

"It’s fine not to be fine: Personal connection is what matters"

World Mental Health Day is recognized on 10 October each year. Personnel mental health and wellbeing is a priority for the United Nations at any time, and it is crucial now more than ever to bring the conversation around mental health and wellbeing to light. We should explore different aspects and angles to mental health in conversations about how we can take care of ourselves, reduce stigma and work together to create a healthier workforce. Head of Human Resources at the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, Miroslava (Mirka) Vavrecanova, shares her reflections on mental health, COVID-19 and the future of work at UNV and beyond.

There is no doubt that 2020 has been challenging. Difficult work situations, changing contexts, working from home and in many instances, disconnection from friends and family. It has forced us to confront our personal and professional realities in new ways. In my personal situation, I am a single mother and COVID-19 has taught me I wear many hats – I am a mother, father, student, team leader, subordinate. Of course, this has been hard on my mental health and wellbeing.

I have worked in human resources at the UN for 20 years. I was drawn to my vocation, because I felt people were important. Caring for others, dealing with staff, regulations, personnel, wellbeing and mental health has always been part of my job, but I too have experienced periods where my mental health has been more impacted by my work.

When I was on assignment in Khartoum, I was the interim head of HR for two months, just before the referendum. I was under incredible pressure to deliver under tight deadlines. I was working 16-hour days and I didn’t speak the language, Arabic. To cope, I started going to the gym every day and what I learned about myself, was that my brain can regulate emotion and reflection better when I am physically fit.

Even now, when my daughter is in bed at night, I find a way to get my exercise in. I have a stationary bike at home, and ride it every night now, to keep my sanity! This routine has been a big part of maintaining my own mental health and wellbeing during this time. Sports, cooking, nature, art, writing; find what works for you, and make it part of your mental health routine.

Historically, the UN context of mental health has focused on staff or volunteers deployed to non-family duty stations, where, for security reasons, colleagues are confined mostly to compounds and seeing family becomes difficult or impossible.

COVID-19 has shown all of us – particularly those who work at headquarters duty stations – what it is like to work in the field: confined to homes, away from family and unsure of how and when lockdowns will end, extra pressure from juggling family and caring responsibilities, not to mention increased workload, with more meetings and expectations of constant availability. This is a confronting scenario that has undoubtedly impacted mental health and wellbeing. --Miroslava Vavrecanova, Head of Human Resources at UNV

I am passionate about changing the stigma around mental health and I am an advocate for change. Now more than ever we need to shine a light and acknowledge that the impact of COVID-19 is different for everyone and that some may be experiencing more hardship mentally more than others.

My mantra is that it is fine not to be fine.

I understand stigma, and I believe personal connection is vital. If you feel challenged reach out – to me, my team, the staff association, your co-workers. Let us look out for ourselves and our colleagues.

For example, here in Bonn, many staff members live by themselves, and are struggling with being unable to see family and friends, or knowing when they may be able to fly home. Reach out and check on them and ask if they are ok. One of the reasons we launched coaching at UNV, was to ensure employees have access to the advice and support of a professional coach and to give them the space to work through how they are thinking and feeling.

In the pursuit of maintaining human connection, COVID-19 has also brought innovation to our operations. We’ve been able to host virtual workshops for volunteers and implement new platforms utilizing technologies that support high-connection virtual learning. --Miroslava Vavrecanova

One challenge we had was to translate in-person workshops to virtual settings. How could we deliver something creative and visual? Technical webinars were not an optimal choice, because we know these lose their effectiveness after around 45 minutes.

Instead, we utilized technologies that support high-connection virtual learning, including, for example, platforms that support breakout groups, plenary sessions, padlets and more. We ended up having people from Fiji to Egypt interacting online and it was amazing. We were surprised at the engagement and connection we were able to achieve!

The world of work will change because of COVID-19, and the UN system is grappling with the notion that our current way of working, job profiles and locations may need to evolve in the post-Coronavirus world. What that looks like I’m not sure, but what I do know is that virtual can never take the place of personal. We can just try to make it work best for the duration.

In this trying year, I have been trying my best to maintain my personal connection with family – for my own health and wellbeing and that of my five-year-old daughter. Just this summer, I drove over 48 hours between my home in Bonn and my family in Slovakia in four different trips, to ensure my daughter remains connected to her roots and spends memorable times with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Assignments aside, we are all still human beings. In the face of the unknown, personal connection is what matters. Stay health, stay safe.