Stay Mentally Healthy at Work during Covid - Ruth McGuire
As we all now know, the costs of Covid to the nation’s health and the economy are massive. In the hospitality, retail and travel sectors, there are almost weekly reports of redundancies. In the Early Years sector, there are also concerns about nursery closures. According to the National Day Nurseries Association: “It is clearly not sustainable to have almost three quarters of providers running at a loss and most of the rest only just breaking even. The tragedy is that some settings have not been able to re-open and 4% are looking at potential closure in the near future.” Of all the sectors, jobs within health appear to be the most secure. However, because of the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, all employees whether or not they are at risk of losing their jobs, have to adapt to working and living in a different way.
Staying in control
With or without Covid, living with uncertainty is a fact of life. Accepting this is the first step to coping with situations that are beyond our control. We have to be realistic and practical. For example, none of us can do anything to obliterate Covid from our lives. It is something that we have to live with until a vaccine is found. However, what is within our control, is our ability to minimise risks. As ordinary members of the population, it means social distancing, queuing to get into shops, wearing masks and so on. However, we still retain control over where and when we shop. Similarly, as employees, there will be some aspects of work we can control and others we cannot control. For example, wearing PPE at all times will be a requirement for front line workers in the health and care sector. However, if you work in this sector, you will be able to remove PPE during lunch or other breaks. You will also still have control over how you use your lunch breaks and may have some control over which shifts you choose to work. You also control which of your colleagues you choose to spend time with during break times or outside of work. Being able to divide aspects of work into those that are ‘controllable’ and those that are not, can help to reduce levels of anxiety.
If you work in a nursery or other Early Years setting where redundancies are a real risk, the anxiety you face may be related to worries about the security of your job. Although you may not be able to control whether or not you are made redundant, you can control your chances of future employment. You can do this by enrolling on courses to either update your skills or gain qualifications that will increase your options for employment in different sectors. You could also get help from a careers adviser to update your CV and identify which of your skills are transferable to jobs in another sector.
A fairly accessible ‘tool’ to help reduce feelings of stress or anxiety at work is ‘talking therapy.’ This could be specialist therapy from a trained counsellor. Some employers offer ‘employee assistance programmes’ or have appointed ‘mental health champions’ who are the ‘go to’ people at work if you have concerns about your emotional or mental health. Check with your manager for any available help like this. Alternatively, a friend or relative who is an expert listener could be your ‘go to’ person whom you can trust not to be judgemental. You will find that quite often just being able to offload your worries to someone you trust, will improve your mental health.
Sharing and caring
Promoting good mental health at work is a two-way process. It works best when managers are aware of their duty of care to keep employees physically as well as mentally safe but also works well if colleagues look out for each other. Caring and sharing in the workplace helps to build positive relationships and reduces anxieties. Staff will probably share the same worries and fears about different aspects of work so are in a good position to support each other. The old adage is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. So, if you notice that a colleague seems quieter or more subdued than normal, offer support and you may be surprised to learn that by helping someone else, you also help yourself! If your role is mostly office based, you may have to spend some of your time working remotely from home. To reduce any feeling of isolation, take the initiative to keep in touch with your colleagues. This could be at pre-arranged times or just informally. As the lockdown eases in many places, it may also be possible to meet up with colleagues in Covid safe cafes and coffee shops.
Physical and mental exercise
Another quick and easy way to improve your mental health is through physical exercise. Depending on where you work, you may be able to team up with colleagues for lunch time walks. Physical activity such as brisk walking, sports, swimming, and other forms of physical exercise are known to release ‘endorphins’, sometimes known as ‘happy hormones.’ According to the NHS, ‘Being physically active can lift your mood, reduce stress and anxiety, encourage the release of endorphins (your body's feel-good chemicals) and improve self-esteem. Exercising may also be a good distraction from negative thoughts, and it can improve social interaction.’ You can also promote good mental health by taking just a few minutes when you are at work to relax. One simple technique recommended by the NHS is as follows:
“If you're sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. Whatever position you're in, place your feet roughly hip width apart.
- Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.
- Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.
- Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful.
- Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes”
You are not alone
Irrespective of your job, you are not alone in dealing with stress and anxiety caused by COVID. However, if you are feeling anxious or stressed to the point of feeling constantly unwell, contact your GP. Alternatively, to manage your mental health yourself check out the following:
Ruth McGuire is an Education Inspector with nearly 15 years of inspection experience. She has taught in both further and higher education. She is also a well-established education and training consultant, writer and freelance journalist. She is a Governor of an outstanding sixth form college and also holds board roles within the NHS.