With home-working more likely to become the norm, what can be done to sustain our mental health and support our colleagues and collaborators?
This article originally appeared in Arts Professional
Last month the British Medical Journal explored the potential long-term mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the population. “There will be no vaccine for these mental health impacts” they say, and emphasise the need for society to explore ways to mitigate this.
An important dimension of this is the impact on our working lives. Many UK workers have experienced the biggest transformations of their working lives. With the enforced closure of live arts venues, galleries, museums and other spaces, many arts workers found themselves furloughed and almost everyone found their normal routines turned on their heads. After the initial shock, people are beginning to find their own route through the ‘new-normal’. Whilst more flexible working practices have been emerging in recent years, there was still a reticence on the part of many employers to fully embrace home-working, but left with little choice, the workforce set up office at home and grappled with the change.
For some this was a welcome opportunity, but for others it has been a logistical and emotional challenge. In March the Arts Marketing Association joined forces with Creative Freedom and performers Sam Renke and Juliette Burton to stage three ‘Wellbeing Hour’ events, on the theme of maintaining good mental health at a challenging time. Issues related to home-working, isolation and balancing the demands of work and family life were prominent in the discussions and highlighted the need for a real focus on this topic.
Talking of the impact of the lockdown, a report by Lancet Psychiatry spoke of being separated from loved ones, the curtailment of social activities and also limitations on exercise having a real mental health impact on many people.
For those living alone – just over 8 million households, according to the Office for National Statistics – the workplace provides much of the social interaction that many of us need to be happy and mentally stimulated. The forced removal of this has, for some, prompted symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The day-to-day banter of the workspace is a welcome punctuation to our working days and in many organisations more is achieved through informal communication than in structured meetings. Without these mechanisms, workers have reported feeling stranded or isolated.
Juggling work and home life
On the surface of it, the ability to work from home appears to bring many advantages – freedom from the morning commute, a more fluid working day and the reduced need to interact with others on the ever-frequent ‘bad-hair days’. But home working also comes with its added pressures. For parents, managing home-schooling alongside their own work has been a dominant challenge, and those who share their home with house-mates or family can find the intrusion of others in the working day stressful.
One participant in our AMA wellbeing sessions asked for advice on how to address a less-than-understanding house-sharer before they came to blows. This is just one dimension of wider problems inherent in cohabitees sharing space which has become both home and office at the same time. Going out to work offers us an opportunity to physically separate home and work life. This line has become increasingly blurred during lockdown and this can take its toll.
Addressing the challenges
To address these challenges takes time and planning, but the effort is definitely worth the reward. MHFA England offers some important hints and tips:
Waking up: Although you may have some extra time in bed without a commute, aim to wake up around the same time every day. This helps stabilise your internal clock and improve your sleep overall.
Getting ready: Keep to your established morning routine if you can – get ready, washed, and dressed as if you are going to the office. This will help you get into the mindset that you are at work.
Setting up your workspace: Try to set aside a work area separate from your sleeping area, as this will help to prepare you for work mode and make it easier to switch off at the end of the day.
Get moving: Including some movement into your work from home routine will help maintain your physical and mental health. You’ll feel more awake and alert, and your concentration and sleep will improve.
Adapt your working style: Keep communication open, as often and frequently as possible. Senior leaders should role model healthy working from home habits and behaviours. Try:
Video calls instead of emailing
Short check-in and check-out calls between managers and their teams, at the start and end of the workday
Optional Q&A sessions for colleagues to dial in and chat through any concerns or queries they have about working from home
Virtual social sessions: Making conscious human connection is more important than ever. If you usually schedule time in the workday for an activity or exercising with your colleagues, continue to make time for this over webcam or phone.
How can we help?
One way we can all better support each other is by regularly checking in and making a conscious effort to ask about people’s emotional health. The causes of mental ill health are a complex mix of individual and societal risk factors and everyone experiences life in different ways. There’s no simple answer to the question, ‘how do I know if someone is struggling?’, but there could be some clues to look out for.
Medical professionals typically ask those concerned about anxiety or depression if they are experiencing a sustained low mood, loss of interest, being tearful, nervous or irritable or avoiding certain situations. Changes in usual behaviour could also be an indicator; if someone is typically outgoing and becomes withdrawn, for example, it could be a sign. Of course, one of the best ways to find out, is to ask – and the simple act of asking the question can be incredibly supportive. By showing that you care, you could be helping to start a difficult conversation and encouraging someone to seek support. Whatever your concerns about another person, or your own emotional health, the benefits of seeking support early are well-documented. GPs and mental health charities such as Mind are a great place to start.
Those wanting to build skills to support others could also explore Mental Health First Aid training. Building knowledge and destigmatising mental health provides more supportive environments and develops individual confidence to offer support.