One of the best pieces of advice about working from home is to create a separate working space. Somewhere that’s just for work, that allows you to close the door at the end of the day and return to your home life. But throw in a partner working from home too, plus the kids searching for a work surface and screen time for their school work, and locating a dedicated work space might be as likely a foreign holiday this year!
So, while we’re battling a pandemic, and as a result seeing the boundaries between home and work blurred, how can we ensure we look after our mental wellbeing? Ensuring you’re looking out for your people remotely has provided a new challenge this year, but not an impossible one if you follow some thoughtful practices in your work day.
Research into the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health is in its early stages — there’s still a lot we don’t know, and won’t for some time. But there are two key things that we do know:
- What mental ill health looks like in general, and how we can help.
- That it’s likely that every single person adjusting to working in lockdown has felt the strain.
With these things in mind, there’s no reason not to put mental health and wellbeing support in place for your people. Good mental health promotes better work happiness, productivity and all-round team cohesiveness.
We know that the government has also announced £5 million in funding to help community and voluntary organisations increase their ability to support people’s mental health, highlighting the importance of acknowledging the struggles many people are currently experiencing, and the fact that support needs to be delivered.
Whether it’s our health, finances, hours we’re able to work, or time with our children, COVID-19 has affected us all. Something has taken a hit for all of us, and the mental health effects of that will be long lasting in some cases.
As leaders, employers, colleagues and friends, there’s a lot of things we can do to support people. Diagnosing an issue is not one them, but signposting for appropriate support while offering changes and help within your control can and will make a big difference.
Think of the last period of stress you experienced — were there any signs leading up to the height of this that signalled to you that your mental health was suffering? Recognising your own behaviours will help you to recognise them in others too, but here’s what to look out for:
Signs that someone may be experiencing mental ill health
• Frequent headaches
• Stomach upsets
• Difficulty sleeping
• Being run down
• Suffering from frequent minor illnesses
• Lack of care over appearance
• Irritability, tearfulness
• Being withdrawn
• Indecision, inability to concentrate
• Loss of confidence
• Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes or sedatives
• Increased errors, missing deadlines
• Taking on too much work or working too much
• Increased absence
• Changes to ways of working or socialising with colleagues
(These signs are from the “Triggers & Signs of Mental Ill Health” from MHFA England.)
I will caveat this: our role is not to diagnose but to signpost where we think there may be experiencing mental ill health.
A common trigger of mental ill health is loneliness, so it’s especially important to look out for people we know to be alone, or with limited exposure to others. And while we commonly think of people living alone in association with loneliness, it can also be experienced in anyone without a strong network to rely on, including single parents and those in a non-fulfilling relationship.
Unless people directly open up about their wellbeing, it can be hard to know for sure how someone is feeling. One bad day doesn’t mean someone is struggling with their mental health, and vice versa, an appearance of coping doesn’t mean everything is fine. Pay close attention to those who are naturally quieter, or less likely to talk about their problems.
How you can help someone experiencing who may be experiencing poor mental health
There are three key ways to support a person’s wellbeing:
- Creating an environment for honesty without repercussion
- Providing a safe and friendly community
- Providing practical steps to increase wellbeing
“How are you, really?”
Let’s consider the first point. We’re all likely to be more honest once we know it’s safe to be. Many fear the repercussions of opening up about mental health struggles at work, and whether they’ll face a loss of responsibilities or judgement. When we lead by example, others are more likely to follow. Could you begin a conversation with your own experience of a tough period, and how you dealt with it? Simply acknowledging that a day or week isn’t going well for you can allow people the space to answer differently when asking how they are.
“Who connects well with who?”
The focus here is meaningful connections, and that may not come from the formal relationships in place. Do you know of friendships within your team? Why not set pairs up for virtual co-working sessions where the connection with a friendly face allows them the opportunity to discuss their feelings?
“How can I support your routine?”
If we think about pre-COVID, we had clearer work/life boundaries. Inviting people to talk about their routines outside of work may provide helpful ideas in a group, including:
• A technology-free breakfast
• Reading a book for a few minutes before work
• Taking an afternoon walk
• Closing down your laptop at 5pm
Back in March, many people voiced the appreciation for their permitted daily walk. If this is a good habit that has slipped recently, encouraging this to return as part of the work day would promote good work trust and relationships, allowing people to feel more valued. It also offers them the chance to directly increase their wellbeing, without trying to fit this in beyond work hours, when children’s meals and bedtimes take priority.
Above all, remember that you don’t have access to people’s private lives. Even the most forthcoming of individuals could be struggling behind closed doors. What’s important is to consider this in the way we treat everyone, and what we ask of them.