How to care for your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Much remains unknown about COVID-19, but what is certain is that it has affected each and every one of us. Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a series of posts by Yvette Coldicott, a Professional Co-Active Coach, Medical Doctor and Advisor/Leader in Digital Health about the impact COVID-19 is having on various aspects of the working community.

Today we look at mental health at work and consider why we need to take particular care to support mental health as we emerge from lockdown. We’ve also got some top tips for how to help yourself through this period.

Why might people need more support for their mental health than usual?

The pressures that people have faced in recent months aren’t going to disappear overnight. These pressures will be present for everybody, but the same for nobody. You may have heard the comment “we might be in the same storm, but we’re all in different boats!” and this seems a good description. No two people are experiencing the same challenges in the same way.

Recent experiences related to COVID-19 may directly trigger mental ill health. Many people have suffered loneliness, bereavement, relationship difficulties, financial concern, challenges juggling a job with caring responsibilities.

The ‘new normal’ remains uncertain. For many, the change and loss of control will lead to an element of fear. Some people may have direct effects from their own working experience through the pandemic, for example certain key workers may suffer trauma-related ill health. Many others may feel anxious about returning to work after having been furloughed for several months. Or for those who have worked remotely for a prolonged period, this anxiety may be around returning to a centralised workplace.

New challenges may have arisen within work, and will continue to do so. For example, job strain may change, or people may take time to adapt to different types of work or ‘flexible’ working (perhaps different hours, different days, or different place of work).

There are so many reasons, but we need to be alert and aim to provide early support colleagues before situations escalate.

What should support look like?

The best support is tailored to the individual and their own changing needs. Early support can ‘nip things in the bud’ and prevent more significant mental ill health. Support can come from many places including, but not limited to, family and friends, local community, employers and we can also take measures to support ourselves.

Top tips to help your own mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Let technology be your friend, but have a balanced relationship with it.

  • Video calls are a mixed blessing. It’s great to ‘see’ other people but it can also be tiring. Don’t be afraid to do audio only if you need a break from the screen, and be reassured that audio calls don’t reduce the level of ‘connection’ you feel with the person you’re talking to – in fact, it can improve this connection because you can really tune in to what’s being said as well as how.
  • Try putting on some headphones and turning your conversation into a walking meeting. This can be beneficial in so many ways!
  • Switch off your view of yourself during video calls – you wouldn’t normally see yourself when you’re talking to someone else and it can be both tiring and distracting when you’re on screen.
  • Think about turning on an automatic response to emails when you’ve got something you need focus on without distractions. Let people know when you’ll be available and how to get hold of you if it’s genuinely urgent.
  • Set boundaries about which tech and communications media are ok for your work colleagues to use, and which ones you want to keep for family and friends. You might be talking to work on email, zoom, slack, teams etc all day long, but perhaps you’d rather keep whatsapp, instagram and facetime for your personal life. Let people know where you’d like to see them and where you’d prefer some privacy.

Pause…. and breathe….

  • Get outside. We all need fresh air and exercise. Some people also need peace and quiet, and others need to see that real life does exist and that they’re not completely alone. Whatever your situation, try to get out at some point (or points) during the day.
  • Focus on gratitude – pause for a moment every day to reflect on what you are grateful for that day. It can be as simple as 3 words in a journal but it’s a super-helpful way to frame your thoughts.
  • Try getting up and moving around when you need thinking time. This is a good reason to get out for a walk, but you needn’t do that. Just standing up can help you focus your energy and think through whatever it is you’re working on much more effectively than you do sitting down.
  • Don’t try (or pretend) to be superhuman. None of us are, and nobody can keep up pretending for long. If you’re juggling (kids, homeschool, caring for relatives) or if you’re struggling (with workload, or your emotions) – speak up. Talk to your employer about it and help them understand what’s going on in your world.
  • Put some boundaries in place about where and when you’re switched on to work and when you’re not. Try to get in a routine of doing (or saying) something to symbolise the beginning and end of every work day and help you stick to your rules.

Keep an eye out for the next part of this series, which will focus on how employers can support mental health, as well as some practical tips to bear in mind when reopening the workplace.