Tackling The Mental Health Consequences of Covid-19, with Heather Morgan of Harkins Theatres

By Helen Budge | November 23, 2020 1:19 am PST
Heather Morgan of Harkins Theatres

Heather Morgan, Vice President of Content and Programming for Harkins Theatres in the United States, is a good example of how education-to-career pathways aren’t always linear. With a PhD in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, a usual role for the recipient of this qualification would be to head up a human resource department for a large company. But instead, Morgan’s career covers many different facets of the film and exhibition business, putting her in a unique position. She’s not only able to speak to industry-specific topics and trends, but also to broader, more “human” issues relating to stress management, work-life balance, leadership and more.

After achieving her doctorate some time spent in consultancy followed, and cinema exhibition then came calling in the form of the Director of Guest Experience role for AMC Theatres. Encouraged by the exhibitor’s then-CEO, Gerry Lopez, the culture at AMC was to expand horizons horizontally, as well as vertically, to gain a fuller picture of the exhibition ecosystem as a whole. To do just this, a stint as the company’s Vice President of Studio Partnership & Film Finance meant Morgan then worked more on the distribution and film negotiation side of the business, before eventually being headhunted for her current role for Harkins Theatres.

This wide scope of industry experience, combined with her grasp of workplace employment issues, puts Morgan in the rare position of being able to offer a more structured approach to a variety of problems during these turbulent, global pandemic-centred times.

Managing Behaviours – Heather Morgan, Harkins Theatres

People Management During a Pandemic

While the commercial side of things for exhibition is tough right now, the pastoral care side can often be overlooked, or neglected entirely, even under normal circumstances and especially during a global pandemic. Although her current role doesn’t require formal, day-to-day use of her psychology background, she still very much employs it in ways that, frankly, couldn’t be more important at the moment.

“People in this industry are currently facing unprecedented challenges,” Morgan said of the current circumstances. “In addition to the virus, people are concerned about a global economic downturn, losing their jobs, working from home, distance learning for their kids, the health of their relationships, the current political climate and the upcoming holiday period which generally contributes to increased rates of anxiety and depression. The assumption that all of this can be managed without difficulty is simply not realistic.”

She continued, “To varying degrees, these issues affect everyone, they’re far-reaching. But because there continues to be a stigma around vulnerability and mental health, it leads people to stay isolated, keep their struggles private and believe that they are suffering alone when, in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

NATO Sessions

Morgan has hosted online webinar sessions on exactly this topic for the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). The most recent of these was in April 2020, focusing on “Navigating Uncertainty and Change” – for obvious reasons – but, notably, at the time of the event and in comparison to NATO’s pre-pandemic webinars, it was the most highly attended educational webinar.

Morgan gave a presentation that walked attendees through potential turmoil that they may be experiencing and why, as well as talking through practical steps that could be taken to look after mental and physical health. Morgan said of the session, “I felt it was critical that we all acknowledge the difficulty of the road ahead, arm ourselves with some basic knowledge and practical survival tools and realize that we were all going to be facing these challenges standing alongside one another.”

Managing Physical Health – Heather Morgan, Harkins Theatres

Recognition and Action

Throughout our daily existence we have instant access to news updates via our devices, social media and mainstream media outlets. During a global pandemic that means people are constantly on the end of a negative news cycle, particularly in the cinema exhibition industry. Morgan pointed out that the constant reports of the “demise of cinema” and the “success of streaming platforms” throughout national lockdowns begins to chip away at even the strongest resolve, adversely affecting the mental health of those exposed to it.

To counter this, a clear communication strategy is essential. Communication from senior management doesn’t have to have all the answers or even good news. But in order to prevent employee imaginations running wild, often to worst case scenarios, providing direct – even negative – updates allows people to deal with facts and plan accordingly.

If nothing else, a lack of communication can frustrate employees who then may build a – perhaps false – picture of being undervalued. These feelings can lead to depression, a lack of motivation or even an employee changing jobs.

Morgan said of this issue, “One of people’s greatest fears is a fear of the unknown. When senior leaders don’t have clear answers, positive news or free time, communication often becomes nonexistent. This lack of communication can have disastrous impacts including lower employee morale, lower productivity, higher anxiety, higher turnover and more. If you are a leader, you have a responsibility during this time to over-communicate with your team whether it’s good news, bad news or barely any news at all. If you are an employee who needs answers, you have a responsibility to ask the questions and understand that not all the answers may be available. In work, relationships and life in general, people will not know what you need, you have to tell them.”

Managing Mental Health – Heather Morgan, Harkins Theatres

Taking Control in Concrete Ways

So in these times of helplessness, what are some practical steps that people can take?

Accept that it’s ok to not feel ok.

“It’s worth repeating that it is perfectly acceptable and expected to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and/or negative at the moment,” Morgan explained. “Understand that you are not alone in that. Withdrawing and secluding yourself and your struggles only makes them worse. While I know it can be difficult, you need to talk openly and honestly about how you’re feeling. Find someone you trust who will listen.”

Identify your causes of stress.

Specific stress triggers may not always be immediately obvious. Try to identify those factors that are causing you particular anxiety: some people don’t do well with isolation, some will be terrified they’re about to lose their income and might be the breadwinners in their household. Some may just be struggling with schooling children and working from home. All problems are extremely personal and individualised but writing out a list can help to clarify where the stress is coming from.

Take control of what you can.

A significant problem for people at the moment is that they can’t control a lot of what’s happening around them – the economy, the industry, the political landscape. But there are things you can do to feel more in control:

  • If you’re feeling frustrated from being in the same space all day go for a 20 minute walk around your local park or around the block. This is something you can do that will help to clear your head. Or, if you can’t leave the house, give a friend or family member a call from a different room.
  • Break everything down to its smallest component parts. Take one step at a time, one decision at a time, one day at a time.
  • Prepare for the unknown, particularly if you’re freaked out about the economic effects of the pandemic on you and your family. Get your finances together by calculating your weekly / monthly budget. With the numbers in front of you, you can plan for different scenarios and create a contingency plan: “If X were to happen, I could cut these things from my budget and contact Y to financially help me out.”
  • Exercise. Quite simply, regular exercise for 30-60 minutes a day boosts endorphins (happy hormones) and is a stress reliever, as well as being good for overall health.
  • Practise mindfulness, meditation, journalling, yoga, breathing exercises or a combination.

A Conclusion to Covid?

The recent news of a Coronavirus vaccine being close to release is, of course, incredibly positive. But after the considerable ups and downs of 2020, feelings of uncertainty and worry are unlikely to completely go away overnight and we still don’t know how long the residual effects of this period may last for. But that’s why it’s important to put coping measures in place and take control of what we can.

Because, despite how hard this year has been, remember that this too shall pass. And, to quote Morgan’s NATO presentation, “We shall come out of this tougher, grittier and more enlightened versions of ourselves than when we went into it.”

Helen Budge