Looking after your mental health - Stephen Mordue
Change can be difficult, and whilst we may kick against routine, it is evident that we thrive on it as a species. Routine sets our mind and body in order and helps us to recognise the cues that tell us something is about to happen. Routine should involve elements that prepare us for what is coming next. Take the morning commute into work, as it used to be, for example - I get into the car with my bag packed with my laptop, my notebook, my lunch box and my phone and I go through a process. I check I have my Staff ID card and change for car parking, I put the radio on, and I start the engine and drive the route to work. When I get there, I park the car, take my office key off my key ring (so it’s the only one I need to carry) I walk into the office, buy a coffee and arrive at my desk ready to work. My routine has transitioned me from home life to work life. I then set about another routine to log onto my computer, check my calendar, and check my emails and my day rolls on...
About a month or so ago the whole world changed. Some were told to work from home. Some were told to keep coming to work because they were key workers. Some were told there was no job for them. Suddenly, our home became a very different thing. The range of situations we find ourselves in at this strange time are as diverse as we are. What used to be a refuge may be now a place tarnished with work pressures or even for some key workers a place associated with risk of spreading this virus or even a place of fear and despair for others. One size doesn’t fit all. So where do you start when thinking about mental well-being?
I do believe the ancient Persian mantra ‘this too will pass’ is appropriate ….because it will. ‘Lockdown’ will come to an end. There will a return to some sort of normality. There will a return to routine. But, during thisperiod of change and adaptationhow do we remain optimistic? How do we remain in control? How do we ensure that everything is likely to turn out alright, despite the current problems we face? We may feel overwhelmed by worries about our jobs, about finances, or about contracting the virus and it’s ok to feel that way, but there are things that we can do to reduce the stress that we feel when we think about these things.
Our stress response is often a useful thing as it motivates us to take action but, when our coping mechanisms run out and we become overwhelmed, we can become distressed. Becoming, and remaining, distressed can have serious consequences for both our physical and mental health. Goleman (1996) says that when people become ‘engulfed’ they can feel swamped by their emotions and helpless to control them, at such time their mood takes charge and they get lost in emotional responses to things. This makes it difficult to stand back from things and take stock. This is where that commute into and back from work can be good when thinking about stress. While there is a relationship between stress in the home and stress in the workplace, we carry stress from one place to the other. The commute can help us switch off to home or to work and ‘transition’ between the two. For many of us now all of ‘life’ is happening in the same place.
When we are overwhelmed, stressed and tense it can affect our motivation. Allen (2015) says that our ability to generate motivation and forward direction is directly proportional to our ability to relax. He uses an analogy from the martial arts world and describes a ‘mind like water’. When a body of water is disturbed from being still by, for example, a rock being thrown into it, it ripples and eventually returns to state of stillness. He says that this is what we should be like. When life throws something at us we should be able to take it, absorb it, and return ourselves to a state of calm. Such a response is likely to help us to maintain our mental well-being because we are managing the ups and downs of life.
How do we create the ability to have a mind like water? There are a number of self-care ideas that help us, when employed over time, to become competent pilots of our lives (Goleman 1996). There are some things that can have an immediate positive impact.
There is a relationship between our physical being and our mental being that means taking care of one can also help to take care of the other. There are some fundamental activities, familiar to us all, that can enhance our mental and emotional well-being. The starting point is sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
Motivation decreases as a consequence of fatigue. The longer we engage in tasks that demand our energy the more tired we become. If we are already tired because we are not sleeping well then we are starting with less ‘fuel in the tank’ and will run out of motivation quicker. If we are confronted with a long shift in a stressful environment, or the distractions of being at home then, when tired, we will not function at our best. I would imagine that, at the minute, some people who are usually good sleepers are not finding it so easy. Worries about work, money, and family that we can’t visit may be taking their toll.
How can you make sure you are getting the sleep you need?
Deal with the thoughts and worries that are stopping you from getting to sleep.Some things may be outside of your control but it’s usually helpful to control what you can. Try writing down the things that are troubling you and how you feel about them. Externalising your thoughts like this can help to ‘put them to bed’ so you can be put to bed! Writing things down can help us acknowledge the things we can change and the things we can’t change and can generate a sense of acceptance of how things are. This might also help you to create a useful list to ‘tick things off’ as you work your way through them, rather than troubles being one tangled mess of thoughts.
Engage in meditation.Research has shown that meditation (or mindfulness)can improve sleep quality and sleep duration (Hulsheggeret al, 2015).Spending some time in quiet contemplation can help to clear the mind. Meditation though is not simply about thinking about nothing. You can meditate ‘on’ things.Siddhartha Gautama,the central figure and originator of Buddhism, spent six years meditating on the essence, causes and cures for human anguish.He didn’t clear his mind and wait for a magical solution to appear. He quietly went about meditating ‘on’ something. When I meditate I find it difficult to clear my mind and find that things from the day come into my thoughts. I let this happen and let them leave my mind in the same way they arrived. Such contemplation in a quiet state can help psychologically process the things that have happened during your day. This could be particularly important for a front line worker but also for those who are at home.
There are other tips here about getting a good night sleep; Self care and sleep
Nutrition and exercise
I feel that sleep is the foundation on which everything else, in terms of self-care, is built. If we are not getting sufficient sleep, we can’t find the energy to manage other areas.
Exercise and nutrition are also important to our mental health. The stress response generates adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies, preparing us for physical action. This is our fight or flight response. The problem comes when we don’t then engage in any physical activity. When this happens, our bodies remain ‘flooded’ with these hormones which means our body is always in a state of preparedness rather than being relaxed, leaving us on edge. Exercise ‘burns off’ these hormones as it uses them up for the purpose for which they were intended. Not only does exercise reduce some hormones but also increases levels of others, like serotonin, which gives us a feeling of well-being. There is more here; Self care and resilience
Nutrition is also important. There is a growing body of evidence showing that how healthy your gut biome is has a direct impact on your mental health with Cryan and Dinan(2012) specifically reporting that your gut biome influences your susceptibility to anxiety and depression. Enders (2014) also points out that about 80% of your immune system is located in the gut. How diverse the microbes are in your gut, directly affects both our mood and our ability to fight disease. There is more here; Listen to your gut
The importance of routine
For those working from home at the moment, one of the problems can be staying focussed and on task.Not because you aren’t dedicated, but because it can be difficult to know how to start when there is so much going on in our heads, our homes and our inboxes!. There are some things that can help. Planning is crucial. Planning brings the future into the present so we can figure out what to do with it and can also help us establish routines. If we know what there is to do over the next few weeks, then we can think about how best to manage our days. For those at home, don’t just think about this in terms of your own work but also think about what else is going on in the home. Think about when you need quiet, when you will make phone calls, and when you will schedule breaks.
Develop a routine and stick to it. The temptation to stay up late and have a lie in is great. Resist this. Keep to the same bedtime and the same getting up time. Not only will this help routine, but it is good a way to promote quality sleep in tune with your body’s internal clock.
Go to bed at between 10 to 10.30 and get up between 6 and 6.30 because that’s what your body is programmed for. Establish a morning routine to get everything ready for the day so that when you start work you are ‘at work’. Take a break at lunch time and set a finish time...then stick to it.
Webb (2016) in her great book (highly recommended!) How to Have a Good Day gives us a great checklist for ‘routine’
Set your intention– think about the day ahead, think about what you want to achieve and think about what is important.
Visualise your day– think through your day and visualise yourself doing each task with skill and finesse. Think about how good you will feel when you have achieved everything you set out to do. There’s a reason golfers have a practice swing and visualise the ball flying through the air or why the penalty kicker in a Rugby game pauses and visualises the trajectory of the ball through the posts. It helps towards success!
Undertake single tasks–multi-tasking has been shown not to work(Dux et al 2006, Iqbal & Horvitz 2007). Undertake each task one at a time in a mindful way focussed exclusively on that task. Avoid distractions like email (as switching between tasks makes us all less productive). Schedule times during the day to check emails as a task in their own right.
Batch your tasks– group similar tasks together. Once you set your mind on a particular way of working you get faster at processing work in that way. So,if you have reading tasks group them. The same with writing tasks;group them. And the same with telephone calls.
Give yourself a break between tasks or groups of tasks and always, always, take a lunch break.Your lunch break is a great time to get some exercise as the break, coupled with exercise, will give you a productivity boost in the afternoon.
End the day on a high note– for me this is looking back over the day and seeing what I’ve ‘ticked off’. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment. I do the same with home life. Once a week I look back through my calendar and contemplate all the things I have done during the week, including celebrating the time I set aside to rest and recuperate by actively engaging in doing nothing!
A word to the managers and leaders.
These are difficult times for all of us,including those in managerial or leadership positions. Trying to look after the welfare and mental health of your teams and keep them productive is a difficult business under the current circumstances.Lack of face to face contact, difficult home environments, and shifting or unclear roles all bring problems for mental well-being.If you are having problems managing staff through the transition to working from home or the change to working under different and difficult conditions it’s worth noting the advice from Chip and Dan Heath (2010).
What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity.The modern workplace can be unclear at the best of times. Do staff understand what is being asked of them? Where is there flexibility? What are the ‘must do’s’? This one is particularly important for those working from home where the requirements of the role have reduced or changed. Have you been clear on task, timescales and other expectations? Do your staff have the resources they need?
What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.This is important for those both still in their workplace or at home. For many it’s not a bonus to be at home even though you would think it might be. At this time the home environment may well be a stressful one particularly if children are being home schooled, or there is limited space to work, or money is an issue. People can become exhausted from the rigours of simply getting on with life. Engaging your empathetic side as a manager or leader is crucial at this time.
What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.The Heath brothers(2010) call the situation, including the environment,the path. It is your job as a manager or leader to shape the path. The greatest challenge is the environment. How do you shape the environment when the environment is someone’s home? Check they are comfortable. Consider if they need different hours or to split their day in two. What can you shift in the ‘environment’ that might help? The environment for a home worker is often what they see through their computer screen. Do they have the right hardware and software? Do they know how to use the software they have? The team I work on have suddenly had to become Microsoft Team and Zoom experts! How can you help your team with this, and which platform is best? All of these things can shape the environment of work in the broadest sense and help manage the ‘situation problem’ rather than labelling it as a ‘person problem’.
Whenever things are difficult and changing, we need to create as much order as possible. Establishing a routine through planning the day and the week, and even the month, will lead to a feeling of stability and provide a guiding compass to navigate us through these times. We all have our individual challenges and I’d urge us to look out for each other and keep communicating. I’m not a fan of the memes I see saying that all we have to do is sit on the couch. That’s not what we are designed for. We are designed to be doing. So, plan it and do it. Look ahead to what is to be done and reflect daily on what you have achieved - because you will have achieved something – I can (almost) guarantee it! Sometimes simply getting through the day is enough. If that’s where you are at then start there and build on that. Endeavour to sleep and eat well, take some exercise, and organise your day to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.
Allen, D. (2015) Getting Things Done:The Art of Stress-free ProductivityLondon: Piatkus
Cryan, J. F.,Dinan, T. G. (2012)Mind-Altering Microorganisms: The ImpactOfThe Gut Microbiotaon Brain And Behaviour Nature ReviewsNeuroscience Volume 13, October 2012, pg. 701–712
Dux ,P E , Ivanoff , J , Asplund , C L and Marois , R ( 2006 ) Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time Resolved fMRI .Neuron ,52 ( 6 ): 1109 – 20 .
Enders, Giulia, (2014)Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ (Revised Edition) Greystone Books.
Goleman, D. (1996)Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQBloomsbury Publishing: London
Heath, C., & D. (2010)Switch: How to change things when change is hardLondon: Random House
Hulsheger, I R ,Feinholdt, A and Nubold, A ( 2015 ) A Low- dose Mindfulness Intervention and Recovery from Work: Effects on Psychological Detachment, Sleep Quality, and Sleep Duration . Journal of Occupational and OrganizationalPsychology ,88 ( 3 ): 464 – 80 . doi:10.121211/ joop.12115 .
Iqbal ,S T and Horvitz , E ( 2007 ) Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks: Field Study, Analysis, and Directions. Paper presented at CHI 2007, 28 April– 3 May 2007, San Jose,CA .
Webb, C. (2016)How to Have a Good Day: The essential toolkit for a productive day at work and beyond.London: Palgrave Macmillan
Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. As well as teaching about Adult Care on the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes he is Practice Learning Coordinator and Programme Leader for the Best Interests Assessment in Practice Programme. He was a social work practitioner and manager for 12 years working mainly with older people and their families. His areas of special interest are effective communication, working with people with dementia, the Mental Capacity Act, and self care and productivity for professionals. You can read more about wellbeing in his book, available here; https://www.criticalpublishing.com/how-to-thrive-in-professional-practice or my visiting Stephen’s blog for self care www.selfcareshorts.com and social care socialworkshorts.co.uk