Coronavirus, working from home and mental health - some advice
As the Coronavirus pandemic worsens around the globe, many people will find themselves isolated, working from home and could face some mental health challenges.
We at diginomica have been trying to handle our coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic in a way that offers practical support, underpinned by facts, for those in our industry - focusing on everything from collaboration techniques to remote working at scale. We realise that these are testing times and we need to provide advice and guidance that offers a path through the noise.
However, as ever, diginomica isn’t a publication that just focuses on systems and processes. We know that a huge part of what makes a business succeed is its people. Which is why this post is going to focus on the potential challenges that employees and workers may face with their mental health as the response to the Coronavirus escalates and more people are asked to self-isolate, distance themselves socially and work from home.
A couple of points first of all, before I proceed. It’s worth stating that I’m by no means a mental health professional - please seek professional help and guidance if you feel like you need support. Talking to someone with the proper expertise is always the best way forward (speaking from experience) and there is support available out there.
Secondly, I know a lot of people and families aren’t lucky enough to work in industries that can rely on remote work to carry on. My own family is having to support people through collective income because of the challenges facing the economy. That will bring its own mental health difficulties and I’d really advise getting some proper, professional support if you need to and are able to. Our thoughts are with all of you.
However, there are huge swathes of people that will find themselves working at home for the first time. Not only that, but they will be working at home in the midst of a worsening public health crisis, where self isolation will likely play a role at some point.
These are incredibly difficult circumstances to be in, given that most of us are inherently social. Even those of us that have worked from home for years and border on the introverted side of things, the idea of weeks of isolation and just staring at a computer screen at home is daunting.
People with existing mental health problems may also find these worsen during these testing times. So it’s particularly important to be mindful, to think about what support can be provided and to be empathetic to people’s individual situations.
I’ve been going through professional advice and have been speaking to people in my network about what works for them to help protect and manage their mental health, particularly during these difficult times. Some of this is advice for the worker, whilst some of it is advice for companies to support workers. I may add more if anything springs to mind and apologies if anything is accidentally insensitive (these are complex issues and please let me know if I have got something wrong!).
Provide useful information
One of the key things an employer can do is provide useful information for employees. This includes everything from clear guidance on what policies are in place whilst Coronavirus is active, changes that are happening across the business and resources to support employees through difficult times. This could be something as simple as providing a resource information page that has been carefully curated, providing links to reliable sources of information.
Not knowing is worse than knowing. Give people clear information and let them know what’s in place. Keep people regularly updated. Offer all the resources and support you can.
Make it clear how you’re planning to support employees across the organisation. These messages are particularly powerful coming from the top, but it’s also important to empower managers to make decisions that work for individuals. Be flexible where you can.
Establish support networks
It’s very easy when working from home in isolation to feel like you haven’t got the support of colleagues or leadership teams (even if it is there!). Removing in person interaction makes it harder to read when people need support or are going through something difficult. It’s much easier to hide behind a computer screen. Companies could consider setting up a buddy system, so that people feel like they’ve got someone else to rely on and talk to. Or other novel ways of creating support groups across teams, from home, should be considered (even if it’s something as simple as a weekly catch up video call!).
It’s also worth noting that managers may face increased stress because of additional responsibilities, so don’t exclude them from these plans. Cross-team manager specific support groups could be considered.
Every organisation will be different, but it’s important to recognise individuals may need additional guidance and support in the coming months. Try and find a workable path towards providing that.
Video conference calls are your friend
Whatsapp, Zoom, Skype, Teams, Google - there are a huge number of apps out there that provide options for multi-person video calling. We know it’s a bit awkward and it doesn’t quite replicate the experience of in-person interaction, but a few minutes a day talking to your colleagues face-to-face could really help boost some people’s mental wellbeing. Schedule them regularly and keep talking.
Linked to the point above, try and stay connected with people that you care about as much as possible. Self isolation is daunting, particularly if you live alone. Make use of the tools available to you - social media, messaging platforms, social games! These can all make you feel connected to groups outside your physical restrictions and could well see you through the worst. Reach out to people, you may find they also need the same interaction.
My friends and I, for instance, have a group call this Thursday evening just to chat and ‘socialise’ for a couple of hours - in the absence of not seeing each other. It’s going to be weird and it’s a bit unnatural but it will likely give me the boost I need.
Also, remember that there are people that may not feel like they have those existing networks to reach out to or may not be inclined to put themselves out there online. Reach out to your colleagues that you think may feel isolated, even if just for a quick chat.
Create a new routine
Having worked from home for years, I can’t tell you the number of benefits I experienced once I figured out that having a strict routine is key. It’s so very easy for work and personal life to blend into one when you work remotely. Set yourself times to work (e.g. 9am-1pm and then 2pm-7pm, or whatever works for you). Stick to those as aggressively as you can and then use the time not working to do what you enjoy.
Clearly, if you’re social distancing and self isolating, the things you enjoy may not be as readily accessible, but try to find new ways to get in that all important ‘me time’. Call a family member/friend. Read a book. Go for a walk. And do it all guilt free, away from work.
Create a work environment
I hesitated to include this one in the list, as not everyone is lucky enough to have the space/resources to create a ‘nice’, dedicated workspace environment. But wherever possible it is highly recommended that you put in place a space for you to go and work, separate as much as possible from your personal life. If you don’t have an office at home (I don’t!), try and set up a space at a table that’s yours. Get a comfortable chair. Put a plant down. I know it all sounds a bit trite, but it can make a huge difference to your perspective throughout the day.
The general advice coming from the authorities is to distance yourself from people as much as possible and to stay away from groups of people. However, I cannot recommend enough going outside for a walk or run. You can still keep your distance from others, but the benefits of some fresh air and being outside are huge.
As with a lot of these points, getting outside for a walk won’t help someone with mental health challenges that are treated by medication and/or professional support, but for a lot of people being outside and a bit of exercise can do wonders.
It might be also worth trying out some of the excellent meditation and guided breathing apps out there. A lot of them are free and have been proven to help reduce stress and introduce a greater sense of control.
Mute what you have to and follow reliable sources
I’m guilty myself of sitting on Twitter all day and waiting for every update with an unhealthy level of anticipation. Be aware of what information you’re consuming and how much you’re consuming. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, take time away from social media and the news. Mute or hide keywords that you find distressing. And if you want to keep updated, follow reliable sources of information (such as government websites) and turn off notifications for everything else. It’s totally understandable if you need time away from it all, so take it if you need it.
Lots more family time
As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, families may be spending a lot more time with each other in the coming weeks and months than they are used to. This can be stressful for a number of reasons. For one, guiding your kids (if you have them) with the information that they need about Coronavirus can be difficult, both for them and for you. There’s some advice here that’s useful - but the general theme is to talk them through it with the key facts, offer them advice on how to protect themselves, whilst also trying to shield them from any hysteria. There also seems to be lots of sources suggesting that if kids are taken out of school, they will feel increasingly isolated, so perhaps consider relaxing the rules on screen time and social media (if you think it’s appropriate!).
However, for adults, there are also likely to be stresses with spending lots of time with your loved ones in close quarters. Set clear boundaries from the start and allow yourselves have time on your own. Don’t be offended if your partner wants to go and sit in a room by themselves for a few hours, reading a book or watching Netflix alone. For lots of families this is going to require finding a new routine and balance - which will be coupled with work stress at home - so be aware that it may take testing different things and listen to each other about what’s working.
Be flexible, listen, be patient and be supportive
Employers, employees, family members, friends - these are really challenging times for everyone and it looks like we are going to have to change the way that we live and interact for a significant period of time, while the Coronavirus crisis persists. I don’t want to churn out the same old ‘be kind’ mantra as everyone else, but please try to be patient with each other, listen to what each of your friends and colleagues needs, and support them where possible with a degree of flexibility. People are complex and have complex needs, which are likely being thrown into flux with the current situation. Let’s all do our best to try and get through this together, finding alternatives that work for the time being, and supporting our wellbeing along the way.