Protecting mental health while working from home

Since the UK – and now, much of the world – moved into a state of ‘lockdown’ following the Covid-19 outbreak, mental and emotional wellbeing (which includes mental health) has come even more to the forefront for workplaces. It seems, just as organisations began tackling mental health, a new pandemic arrived to shift the ground beneath our feet yet again.

Some of the difficulties that Covid-19 presents within mental health are:

  • Balancing work and home life within the same environment – particularly for those working from home for the first time.
  • Less time outdoors and in nature
  • Disruption of routines
  • Struggling with less socialisation – especially difficult for those who are more sociable or extroverted.
  • Those in abusive or unsupportive homes are isolated, and in many cases must now also work within that environment.

When it comes to businesses addressing these challenges, it’s more important than ever for managers and business leaders to be setting an example. In our recent Community Wellbeing webinar, Trish Driver – Founder & CEO of A New Normal – said: “Having a policy is great and a really good baseline, but having really visible strong leadership supporting that is important; we are all responsible for the cultures of the company that we work within.”

In today’s world of work, it is not enough to have a wellbeing policy in place – all of us, from executives to the board, must be investing in our wellbeing. Trish went on to say: “Every single person who works in a business is responsible for the culture within that organisation. You have to have permission from a leadership level to say ‘this is what we’re going to do’. You need those role models.”

Given the extent of the mental health challenges we are facing, how can we support our own mental health and that of our colleagues and employees?

Remember mental health ≠ mental illness

First, we must remember that mental and mental illness are not the same: we all have mental health – our wider mental and emotional wellbeing, which is impacted by various factors e.g. work stress or relationship issues. But only some of us will experience mental illness – a specific condition such as anxiety, personality or mood disorders.

During lockdown and Covid-19, everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing will be affected, but the impact may be especially prominent for some:

  • Those with existing mental health conditions that are exacerbated by the anxiety, isolation or uncertainty of Covid-19.
  • Those with underlying mental health issues that may be triggered into relapse by the situation.
  • Those who may be experiencing mental illness for the first time – particularly with common mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

Stick to your working hours

Whether it’s business as usual, or you’ve had to adjust for caring responsibilities, make sure to respect your set hours. Where possible, start and finish as planned, and take your lunch at a consistent time (away from your workspace). It can be tempting to shift hours when working from home, but it’s important to stick to them – finish on time, and resist the urge to start early even if you wake up before the alarm! Remember to communicate your hours with colleagues (especially if these have changed since lockdown) – not only does this help manage expectations for your availability, but it ensures you won’t be interrupted with work queries during downtime.

Separate your work from home

As many people move to working remotely, we’re being flooded with images of people’s pre-existing office setups or spare rooms transformed into home offices. But not everyone has that luxury – for those living in a studio flat or a shared house, floor space is a hard-to-come-by commodity and ‘the office’ is often the sofa or kitchen table. Here, it’s even more important to separate work from home. Some quick ways to do this are:

  • Turn off devices (don’t just lock them) after work, and keep them stored in the cupboard or your rucksack outside of working hours.
  • Wear different clothes for work time – if you’re struggling to get ready as normal, then try just switching out of your pyjamas into different comfortable clothes, or having a quick shower to give a definite sense of ‘starting the day’.
  • Use sensory cues, such as different music playing while working versus relaxing, burning a certain scented candle, or using a specific cushion on the sofa while working and a different one after work.
  • You can even trick your brain somewhat by leaving the house – walk around the block, or literally just lock the front door and stand outside for a minute before/after work.

Stop checking the news

It’s difficult to avoid being glued to social media and news channels when things are changing daily, but this can cause more anxiety and confusion than clarity. Rather than getting overwhelmed by 24/7 news, ask a trusted friend or family member to tell you the important updates once a week. Try unfollowing news outlets on social media, or update to following a single, streamlined account like Simple Politics to get the important news as necessary.

Have an outlet for negative feelings

Whether you’re living in newly-close proximity to someone, or are feeling lonely from social isolation, it’s important to have an outlet for these feelings and frustrations. Having a healthy way to work through emotions is always important, but even more so during Covid-19. This can be anything which allows you to productively, safely, expel negative feelings and thoughts e.g. writing in a journal, going for a run, speaking to a friend on the phone etc.

Consider how you communicate

It can be easy to fall into a pattern of overcommunicating when working from home – employees want to prove their productivity; employers want to check in on people. But for some, a constant barrage of communication can be overwhelming. Make sure to tailor communication for individuals – some people may feel isolated and want to talk more, some may need clearer goal-setting when at home, some may prefer emails to phone calls or be naturally happy with less social interaction. Whatever your stance on communication with colleagues, let it be led by them.

Reach out for professional help

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that if you, an employee or colleague are experiencing distress, thoughts of harming yourself, or prolonged anxiety, depression – then consider reaching out for professional help. You can find your local NHS mental health support team here, who can be contacted for advice and support. Or, if you feel immediately at risk, please call the Samaritans (UK) free on 116 123.

Final thoughts

Many of the best tips for maintaining your mental health when working from home are the same as when at work – talk to your colleagues, offer a mental health handbook to employees, stick to a routine… The difficulty is that for many people, right now, these things feel a harder to actually do. Above all, be patient and compassionate with yourself, and remember that it’s okay if things aren’t as easy as they once were.

Further resources:

The Mental Health Foundation have some fantastic resources and an in-depth guide (for both employees and employers) on supporting mental health during Covid-19. View here.

Solent Mind offer a free mental health toolkit for supporting employees or yourself while working from home. Download here.

Mind have a dedicated website area for supporting yourself and your team during Covid-19. View here.

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The NHS Every Mind Matters organisation also have further tips for maintaining mental health while isolated. View here.

Take a look at Benefex’s programme of wellbeing webinars here.