Mental health during the pandemic: Current state and how to improve it for your family and empoyees

The current state of mental health

We all have mental health. Good mental health is an asset that helps us to thrive. This is not just the absence of a mental health problem, but having the ability to think, feel and act in a way that allows us to enjoy life and deal with the challenges it presents. Yet it can be easy to assume that ongoing stress is the price we have to pay to keep our lives on track. It is time to challenge that assumption.

In March, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, NatCen conducted a survey amongst its panel members in England, Scotland and Wales. This aimed to understand the prevalence of self-reported mental health problems, levels of positive and negative mental health in the population, and the actions people take to deal with the stressors in their lives. 2,290 interviews were completed, with 82% online and 18% by phone.

Key findings

  • Nearly two-thirds of people (65%) say that they have experienced a mental health problem. This rises to 7 in every 10 women, young adults aged 18-34 and people living alone.
  • Only a small minority of people (13%) were found to be living with high levels of positive mental health.
  • People over the age of 55 report experiencing better mental health than average.
  • People aged 55 and above are the most likely to take positive steps to help themselves deal better with everyday life - including spending time with friends and family, going for a walk, spending more time on interests, getting enough sleep, eating healthily and learning new things.
  • More than 4 in 10 people say they have experienced depression
  • Over a quarter of people say they have experienced panic attacks.
  • The most notable differences are associated with household income and economic activity - nearly 3 in 4 people living in the lowest household income bracket report having exprienced a mental health problem, compared to 6 in 10 of the highest household income bracket.
  • The great majority (85%) of people out of work have experienced a mental health problem compared to two thirds of people in work and just over half of people who have retired.

Tips for home and remote working

For many of us IT and technology will be a lifeline during a period when our working patterns will change. It can be quite an adjustment though to do a lot online, and we aren't all tech geniuses:

  • Ask for help with IT - from IT department and from colleagues. Wherever possible try and use equipment provided by work - but if there's no alternative most conference software can also be used on mobiles and tablets.
  • Use online training to guide you to learn new skills - Microsoft and other companies that provide remote working software have good, free videos available to help.
  • Try and use video calls whenever you can - there's no substitute for seeing another person's face. If videoconferencing is a step too far, you can do WhatsApp video for basic video calls with close colleagues.  If you'd check in with colleagues in person in the office - check in with them virtually as well - whether by video or by call/email.
  • Try and keep your work channels clear for work topics - but create social channels too on your intranet or messenger tool. Have a space where people can shoot the breeze or share pet pictures without talk of the virus - and have a separate space where people can find updates about policies and procedures relating to the outbreak.
  • Think about your digital working style and how it fits with others in your team - you need to find a rhythm. Sending an email doesn't mean that everybody has read it - and some people like to send emails at off times - but they don't necessarily expect you to answer.

Getting into a routine 

Working from home or remotely can be very challenging and isolating. Sometimes our attention wanders, or we miss people.  

A structured day can be a good way to address this: 

  • Designate a place to work that is as free of distractions as you can make it.
  • Set a routine for working at home - it's important to get up and get started, to take regular breaks including a lunch break, and to finish working and turn off at an appropriate time.
  • No matter how tempting, avoid working in your pyjamas all day. This is likely a big change already so try not to lose all your daily routines at once.
  • Try and set clear tasks for the day - three major decisions or activities is a good day's work - but keep an eye on ongoing tasks too. You won't always get as much done at home - but you might get loads done. One great tip we heard of this week was to have a WEB list – W – what you want to achieve – E – what you expect to achieve – and B – what you had Better achieve that day. This helps prioritise.
  • Have a proper lunch break. Stop, makes something nice to eat, and eat away from your work area.  Try and get outside and get some natural light if you can do so safely, and try some exercise, again within guidelines on social contact - it's easy to get dragged in to work out of hours.
  • Use your diary to clearly say to others when you are working and when you are available to speak.
  • Consider keeping a journal - incorporating gratitude practice - ask "What was I grateful for today?" - and learning - ask "What was I challenged by today?" - in a week or so you will start to get insights into things you can improve in this working pattern. Soon you'll get to know when you do your best focused work, or need the most input. At home that might be different to the office. You could combine this with a paper bullet journal or planner to keep thoughts, tasks and achievement in the same place.
  • When you are done for the day, pack away your work things or leave your work area at the end of the day.
  • If you are home-schooling or looking after children whilst trying to work, have a conversation with work about those realities. Try and set up a routine whereby you have distinct times for working and for helping with school time. Dividing your attention may leave both things suffering and being there for children offering undivided attention at these uncertain times is very important.

Keep up the formal and social flow of work 

It's really important that structured and unstructured connections with work and colleagues carry on whilst people are working remotely or flexibly:

  • If you are a manager, discuss with your teams how you'd like to run supervision, check-ins, and sign offs remotely. Let people know how and when to contact you and try not to go outside those lines until you've got a routine established. 
  • Try to use video for all formal discussions, and any discussions where you are checking in on someone’s well-being - the non-verbal communication is key for this. 
  • Follow-up video chats or calls with a quick note with a summary of the actions to take, or your understanding of the major points to ensure that things are clear. 
  • Use video calling software for informal chats - Soup. Sandwich and Skype lunches - or virtual coffee catch-ups for example. 
  • If a new starter joins your team during this period, try to take time off your workflow and have a long videoconference induction with them and a virtual lunch. Acknowledge they’re not starting under ideal circumstances and this might stress them out on top of the common stress of wanting to demonstrate their skills and fit for the new job. 
  • Consider having break or lunch buddies to encourage you to take a break or a lunch break - or check in with your team at the end of the day to update on what you've done - work and otherwise that day. 
  • Try and keep a separation between work and personal - think for example before connecting with colleagues you wouldn't ordinarily link with on things like Facebook and respect the boundaries people have between work and home life. 

Use the support that's available  

This is a challenging time for all of us – and whether we are at work or not many employers provide support.

  • Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programmes, and wider benefits. Use these wherever you need - many have dedicated apps and websites and they aren't just about counselling. 
  • If you have ongoing health or mental health conditions, even if they aren't disclosed, your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. In this case this could include home working, additional support from managers, or equipment. 
  • It's quite likely that we will need to accept a certain amount of distress and anxiety relating to the outbreak, in the short and medium term. If you have self-care techniques that work for you, try and make sure that you have what you need. You may need to think differently - for example doing exercise workouts from videos instead of attending classes. You may want to consider looking at mindfulness practice or finding ways to help others in your community. Self-compassion, and support for others is going to be very important. 

Tips for Employers and Leaders

1. Share reputable sources and follow official advice from:

Try not to share or encourage employees to share other articles and information. There are a lot of media and social media discussions that are based on a rapidly evolving field of research. It is best to stick to reliable sources for official communications. 

2. Consider who needs information and when 

You may have a group at work who are planning how your workplace will manage during the outbreak. If so, remember to consider carefully who needs to be involved in that planning and when, to minimise gossip and or anxiety. 

3. Talk to your people 

You could keep in regular, possibly daily contact with your people - both the general population, and with managers and supervisors.  

Try to be honest, authentic and sincere in what you say. Start by acknowledging the uncertainty and the stress it causes. Be prepared to say that you don't know and that you will come back to people with answers.  

This is important whether people are in the workplace or at home. Make sure that alongside regular communication with all staff, you also communicate with line managers. They are the main contact between an organisation and its people and if you want to achieve consistently applied policies and advice, they may need more information than you give to all staff. 

4. Everyone has mental health - consider the impact this has across the board

We all have mental health, and whatever our circumstance this outbreak is going to have an impact on how we think and feel about ourselves and the world we live in. Good work is great for our mental health and it's important that we preserve the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of work wherever we can.  

Some people are at greater risk of poor mental health. When you plan your response, consider how it affects staff with protected characteristics (sex, age, disability, race, sexual orientation etc.) or other challenges (e.g. how people from Asian or Italian backgrounds may be facing discriminatory behaviours) - and adjust accordingly. Try to act in a way that protects the physical and mental health of staff - starting with those who are at greatest need.   

5. Remember vulnerability has many faces 

There is a lot of talk of physical vulnerabilities in relation to the Coronavirus. But senior managers will feel vulnerable too in demonstrating leadership in unusual circumstances. Help each other stay composed by encouraging and reminding how good a job they’re doing. 

This can be a particularly difficult time for people with pre-existing or past mental health problems. Staying at home may be bringing back memories of bad times to people who have experienced depression or trauma. Know your people and do a little extra for those who are more vulnerable if you notice changes in their behaviour. 

These circumstances might lead people to disclose mental health problems they have previously not discussed at work. Treat new disclosures with respect and compassion and make adjustments. 

6. Promote access to support 

You may provide access to support services through your workplace - if you do, make sure these are advertised well and find out whether there are specific resources relating to the outbreak.  

Make sure people also know where they go and who they talk to internally. If you have mental health champions, allies or mental health first aiders make sure they have the latest information, and that if you change working practices that this network of mental health support carries on if possible. 

7. Use technology for work and social aspects of work 

Provide equipment and support for staff to use technology to keep in touch with each other, with colleagues and with their managers. Offer advice for those not used to working in this way - perhaps with a buddy scheme to gain confidence.  

Encourage people to maintain the informal conversations too if they are working virtually. You may have an instant messenger or intranet like Slack or MS Teams - but text messages and calls work as well.  You could also try video call lunches and coffee chats and virtual birthday celebrations. A daily check in with teams and direct reports, with weekly manager briefings is a good idea. 

8. See opportunities for growth and development alongside crisis planning 

Consider whether there are tasks that you can do if regular business is disrupted - planning, staff development, and catching up on admin jobs are all possible things that can be done that increase your readiness to resume business as usual later. If you are able, you could support local food banks and connect staff to volunteering opportunities and community support schemes if appropriate. 

9. Encourage personal planning and self-care 

Encourage your people to plan for how they will manage under self-isolation, or quarantine.  If people are at home social distancing or self-isolating with symptoms keep in touch. If you put on virtual social events for staff - like a virtual book-group or a daily creative challenge or puzzle, make sure people at home are included. 

Coming into work where necessary

If you are an essential worker coming to work during the epidemic, thank you for everything you are doing in our communities.

It will feel unusual, and may add to the anxiety you feel, or that loved ones feel for you.

  • If you can reduce your travel, consider doing so, or changing the method of transport you use or the times you travel to reduce peak travel and increase the distance between you and others so that you can observe social distancing guidelines.
  • Maintain the scrupulous hygiene measures advised by authorities. Hand washing, catching sneezes and coughs, and not touching your face are still a key strand in preventing the virus spreading. 
  • The virus is likely to be a hot topic of conversation at work. Try to minimise gossip and hearsay about both the news and personal stories of things you've heard and people you know. It can help dial back people's anxiety.
  • Look for specific advice from your union, trade organisations and trade press. This resource from the intensive care society is a good example of where vital staff at the front line can be supported and support each other.

Help whoever is in need

One thing that we have seen all over the world is that kindness is prevailing in uncertain times. People are coming together to sing on balconies in Italy, others are setting up groups to offer support to the elderly or vulnerable - like collecting groceries or calling them for a chat. We have heard stories of people having virtual movie nights and creating choreographed dances over video chat to share with the world.

We have learnt that amid the fear, there is also community, support and hope

The added benefit of helping others is that it is good for our own mental health and wellbeing. It can help reduce stress and improve your emotional wellbeing. In short, doing good does you good.

Acts of kindness make the world a happier place

The government is telling us to stay at home and only go outside for food, health reasons or essential work, to stay two metres (six feet) away from other people and wash our hands as soon as we get home. This will mean that more of us will be spending a lot of time at home and many of our regular social activities will no longer be available to us.

Get involved with random acts of kindness

  • Call a friend that you haven’t spoken to for a while
  • Tell a family member how much you love and appreciate them
  • Make a cup of tea for someone you live with
  • Arrange to have a cup of tea and virtual catch up with someone you know
  • Help with a household chore at home
  • Arrange to watch a film at the same time as a friend and video call
  • Tell someone you know that you are proud of them
  • Tell someone you know why you are thankful for them
  • Send a motivational text to a friend who is struggling
  • Send someone you know a joke to cheer them up
  • Send someone you know a picture of a cute animal
  • Send an inspirational quote to a friend
  • Send an interesting article to a friend
  • Contact someone you haven’t seen in a while and arrange a phone catch up
  • Spend time playing with your pet
  • Reach out to call a friend, family member or neighbour who is experiencing loneliness or self-isolation
  • Donate to a charity
  • Lend your ear – call a colleague and ask how they’re finding the change in routine
  • Give praise to your colleague for something they’ve done well
  • Arrange to have a video lunch with a colleague
  • Send an inspirational story of kindness people around the world are doing for others to someone you know
  • Donate to foodbanks
  • Offer to skill share with a friend via video call - you could teach guitar, dance etc.
  • Offer support to vulnerable neighbours
  • Offer to send someone a takeaway or a meal

Top tips for how you can support your child's mental health 

Below are some ideas for how you can support your child, as well as some suggestions for where you can get further information. 

Day to day

Our everyday habits are important to our mental health, just as they are to our physical health. Here are a few suggestions to help your child develop good habits. 

Think about the five ways to wellbeing

Are there things you can encourage them to do, or do together, each day? 

Talk openly about mental health

Just as you might encourage them to eat fruit and veg to keep their bodies healthy (and model this behaviour yourself), talk openly about, for example, staying connected with others or being physically active in order to take care of our minds. 

Model good habits 

Children often learn from copying what they see around them. If you are taking care of your own mental health, it's easier for them to see what good habits look like. 

Think about phone usage – both theirs and yours

We don't fully understand the impact of social media on our mental health but using phones and laptops can impact on our sleep, which is important to our mental health. 

We're also more likely to listen to one another if we're not distracted by technology.

Notice any changes in your child's behaviour 

Young people tell us how they're feeling in many ways, not always verbally. 

Learning what is normal for your child makes it easier to notice when things change, and if this might be a sign that they're struggling. 

When times get tough

Sometimes you might worry about your child's mental health. While you might need to speak to a member of school staff or your GP for advice, here are a few things you can do if you're worried. 

Let your child know that you're concerned

Explain why you feel that way, for example if you've noticed they haven't been interested in activities they usually enjoy.

Use activities that you do together to have conversations about how they are doing

Talking whilst doing something together, side-by-side, such as cooking, can help them share their feelings more easily than a face-to-face conversation. 

Let them know that struggling sometimes is normal and nothing to be ashamed of

Tell them about the mental health spectrum and that we all, including you, go up and down the scale throughout our lives. Reassure them that talking about difficult feelings with the people we trust is a brave thing to do. 

Listen and empathise

Often the first step to feeling better is feeling connected and knowing that someone is alongside you. 

Empathy helps young people (and adults) connect. Empathy involves acknowledging what your child is feeling, trying to understand things from their point of view and avoiding judgment. Empathy is usually more helpful than giving advice or trying to 'fix' their problem.  

If you're still worried

Talk to a trusted member of school staff or your GP who can point you towards sources of help. 

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