Coronavirus - Your Mental Health
Coronavirus and Covid-19 are likely to be around for some time to come. The impact of coronavirus has been more far-reaching than anyone first anticipated. The impact of the virus has struck employers particularly hard, with many sectors affected by redundancies and furloughing of staff, and most having to embrace new ways of working.
The brave new world scene for 2021 is one of a dependency for Working From Home, WIFI, and digital technology.
Organising your mind for better homeworking in 2021
In the employment law team at Lawson-West Solicitors, we have witnessed first-hand the types of employment issues affecting employers and employees during the pandemic.
In the brutal economic reality of cost-cutting, productivity improvement and business survival, there is another story, which is an employer’s responsibility to help support vulnerable employees and guide an appropriate Health and Safety strategy in the workplace.
With ever-more-fierce variants of coronavirus upon us and employees or their family members likely to contract the illness, or needing to isolate, we set out below, some of the main issues and the responses which may help with mental health issues.
Coping with mental stress and anxiety
It is true that a person’s mental health and wellbeing is their own responsibility, however, employers have a clear responsibility under UK Health & Safety law [Health and Safety Act 1974] to take care of their employees and this includes their mental health and wellbeing.
Working From Home (WFH) means less connection with people in the work environment and full ‘Lockdowns’ mean less contact with people altogether, so it’s no wonder that isolation can lead to increased mental health issues. See Fear and Anxiety below.
There are various ways to combat stress and anxiety:
- Try to keep active
- Get as much sunlight, fresh air and nature as you can
- Find ways to spend your time
e.g. have a tidy-up or clear out. You could sort through your possessions and put them away tidily or have a spring clean. You could also have a digital clear out. Delete any old files and apps you don't use, upgrade your software, update all your passwords or clear out your inboxes.
Find ways to relax and be creative:
• arts and crafts, such as drawing, painting, collage, sewing, craft kits or upcycling
• playing musical instruments, singing or listening to music • writing
5. Keep your mind stimulated
Keep your brain occupied and challenged. Set aside time in your routine for this. Read books, magazines and articles. Listen to podcasts, watch films and do puzzles.
Although high street library branches are closed, some libraries have apps you can use online. These allow you to borrow ebooks, audiobooks or magazines from home for free, if you're a library member.
There are lots of apps too that can help you learn things, such as a foreign language or other new skills.
6. Take care with news and information
If news stories make you feel anxious or confused, think about switching off or limiting what you look at for a while. Stay connected with current events but be careful where you get news and health information from.
Social media could help you stay in touch with people but might also make you feel anxious including if people are sharing news stories or posting about their worries. Consider taking a break or limiting how you use social media. You might decide to view particular groups or pages but not scroll through timelines or newsfeeds.
7. If you are feeling anxious
If you have panic attacks or flashbacks, it might help to plan a 'safe space' in your home that you'll go to where you feel protected.
You can also find ways to comfort yourself if you're feeling anxious. For example, there are games and puzzles you can use to distract yourself, and breathing exercises which may help.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has more information on how to cope if you're feeling anxious about coronavirus.
8. If you are feeling claustrophobic or trapped
Open the windows to let in fresh air. Or you could spend time sitting on your doorstep, or in the garden if you have one.
Try looking at the sky out of the window or from your doorstep. This can help to give you a sense of space.
Regularly change the rooms you spend time in.
Mounting scientific evidence from hundreds of universities—including the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom—strongly suggests that mindfulness gently builds an inner strength, so that future stressors have less impact on our happiness and physical well-being.
The ways mindfulness can help you and other employees to manage stress:
Nine ways mindfulness helps with stress
You become more aware of your thoughts. You can then step back from them and not take them so literally. That way, your stress response is not initiated in the first place.
You don’t immediately react to a situation. Instead, you have a moment to pause and then use your “wise mind” to come up with the best solution. Mindfulness helps you do this through the mindful exercises.
Mindfulness switches on your “being” mode of mind, which is associated with relaxation. Your “doing” mode of mind is associated with action and the stress response.
You are more aware and sensitive to the needs of your body. You may notice pains earlier and can then take appropriate action.
You are more aware of the emotions of others. As your emotional intelligence rises, you are less likely to get into conflict.
Your level of care and compassion for yourself and others rises. This compassionate mind soothes you and inhibits your stress response.
Mindfulness practice reduces activity in the part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is central to switching on your stress response, so effectively, your background level of stress is reduced.
You are better able to focus. So you complete your work more efficiently, you have a greater sense of well-being, and this reduces the stress response. You are more likely to get into “the zone” or “flow,” as it’s termed in psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
You can switch your attitude to the stress. Rather than just seeing the negative consequences of feeling stressed, mindfulness offers you the space to think differently about the stress itself. Observing how the increased pressure helps energise you has a positive effect on your body and mind.
A 7-minute practice for responding to stress
Bring to mind a current challenge in your life causing you stress. A situation that you’re willing to work with at the moment. Not your biggest challenge but not so small that it causes no stress at all. A 3 on a scale of 1–10 is a good guide.
Bring the situation vividly to mind. Imagine being in the situation and all the difficulties associated with it.
Notice whether you can feel the stress in your body. Physical tension, faster heart rate, a little bit of sweating, butterflies in your stomach, tightness in the back or shoulders or jaw, perhaps. Look out for your stress signals.
Tune in to your emotions. Notice how you feel. Label that emotion if you can, and be aware of where you feel the emotion, exactly, in your body. Just try to spot it as best you can. The more precisely you can locate the emotion and the more you notice about the sensation, the better. With time and experience, you’ll keep getting better at this.
Bring mindful attitudes to the emotion. These include curiosity, friendliness, and acceptance.
Try placing your hand on the location of the sensation—a friendly hand representing kindness. Do it the way you would place your hand on the injured knee of a child, with care and affection.
Feel the sensation together with your breathing. This can promote a present-moment awareness and mindful attitudes to your experience.
When you’re ready, bring this meditation to a close.
[This practice was adapted from Shamash Alidina’s book The Mindful Way Through Stress]
Loneliness - dealing with isolation
People and employees are likely to feel isolated and lonely during coronavirus and especially during lockdowns. It is worrying that many people live alone and work can be their only connection with people. Carers and those living with aged parents or carers supporting special needs family members might also begin to feel very lonely. It is easy not to think of such situations when at work, but in lockdown it can be pretty soul-destroying not to have an occasional conversation with someone else.
The answer is to ensure that someone at work is connecting and chatting to people who might be at risk of loneliness. Anyone can feel lonely and it doesn’t take much isolation for one’s thoughts to become despondent and negative and depression to set it.
Fear and anxiety
Most people suffer with mental health issues at some point in their life and across a workforce many employees already have mental health issues, which WFH can make worse, or it can affect employees for the first time.
Stress, depression and anxiety can require medication or a leave of absence, which can lead to changing priorities, new attitudes and even an inability to cope with ordinary workplace situations, increased workload or colleagues.
Fear of infection
When employees are scared to come into the workplace for fear of:
catching Covid-19; or
family member or friend has the infection – they don’t want to spread it; or
family member or friend is shielding – they don’t want to infect them; or
they are self-isolating, they have symptoms or they don’t
then employers need to be sensitive to the emotions of individuals, but also confident in their own health and safety procedures that have been put in place. Communication is the key to understand each employee’s personal circumstances and to be fair and understanding if the employee cannot come into work, or fears it. It might require a staged return to work, or for suitable precautions to be put in place first, or if they are simply not able to work, then the employer should identify other workers who can share tasks in the meantime (without causing undue stress or anxiety for those individuals either!).
Enforced isolation can contribute to agrophobia - an anxiety disorder characterised by a fear of certain places and situations that the person believes is difficult to escape from, such as open spaces and public transport.
Anyone can develop this condition at any time in their life and it isn’t the preserve of ‘nervous’ people. Being couped-up at home due to the pandemic could cause feelings of anxiety about leaving a safe environment:
travelling on public transport
visiting the workplace
If someone with agoraphobia finds themselves in a stressful situation, they'll usually experience the symptoms of a panic attack such as:
rapid breathing (hyperventilating)
feeling hot and sweaty
They'll avoid situations that cause anxiety and may only leave the house with a friend or partner. They'll order groceries online rather than going to the supermarket. This change in behaviour is known as ‘avoidance’.
Look out for the signs of agoraphobia in your employees, having open communication can help to identify those most at risk and how to support them. Read more about the symptoms of agoraphobia.
Stress – PDSD
Just like a war scenario, the coronavirus pandemic for some people has been a major trauma in their life, particularly if they have lost someone close to them from Covid-19.
Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder (PDSD) can affect any person at any time in their life and people react to traumatic experiences in a variety of ways. Some may experience symptoms of trauma which dissipate after a number of weeks. However, if symptoms of trauma continue for longer than a month PTSD or PDSD may be present and trauma symptoms vary from person to person.
Individuals with PTSD almost always have altered cortisol levels, and a prolonged exposure to these increased hormones can cause some unexpected, and very inconvenient physical problems.
C-PTSD includes the symptoms of PTSD, but also has 3 additional categories of symptoms: difficulties with emotional regulation, an impaired sense of self-worth, and interpersonal problems.
It is rare to develop PDSD, learn how to Identify the symptoms of PDSD and PTSD here. Employers should be aware of the possibility that an employee may go on to develop PDSD and recognise the illness as different from depression or anxiety.