Last reviewed 2 February 2021
As the uncertainties of the pandemic continue, working from home is adversely affecting the mental health of many people — as employees, parents and partners. Simple actions can often make a big difference, Jon Herbert reports.
As many people are aware, there are huge differences between feeling a bit low and coping with serious emotional health problems over a long period.
Another Covid-19 lockdown — with the spread of new virus variants, a race to deploy innovative vaccines and no clear indication of when the crisis will end — is making it more difficult than before to maintain good mental health.
Once regarded as a taboo subject, a greater awareness and understanding of the negative impacts of mental health in recent years is being accentuated by the severity and social restrictions created by Covid-19.
Professional medical help should always be considered. However, for thousands of people working from home with extra family responsibilities and pressures, specialist guidance available online can be helpful and supportive.
Understanding leads to improved productivity
The Mental Health Foundation is part of the UK's national mental health response to Covid-19; its website offers extensive advice for employers, employees and others, eg How to Support Mental Health at Work.
Statistically, most people will have mental health problems at some point in their lives. The foundation estimates that in normal times, the contribution to UK GDP made by people at work who have, or have had, mental health problems is as high as £225 billion, or 12.1%, annually.
At adds that good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand. There is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing can raise productivity by up to an estimated 12%.
However, mental health isn't static and can fluctuate as circumstances change and at different stages of life. Again, statistics suggest that one in six people experience mental health problems every week in normal times.
Employers have a duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees under health and safety legislation, which in some cases can involve a definition of being disabled under the Equality Act 2010.
Employers must make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities; what is “reasonable” depends on circumstances, the nature of the disability, plus employer resources, and can cover amendments to working hours, location of work, specialist equipment, or the job itself.
Creating mentally healthy workplaces
The Mental Health Foundation lists four key actions for employers.
Value mental health and wellbeing as core assets of your organisation.
Support the development of compassionate and effective line management relationships.
Value the diversity and transferable skills that live experience of mental health problems bring and support disclosure.
Specific support during the pandemic
Another recognised information source is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) which provides specific support related to the pandemic, eg its guide Coronavirus (Covid-19): Mental Health Support for Employees.
It acknowledges that many employees are not comfortable speaking about poor mental health. Employers need to step up to the Covid-19 plate and help employees in three ways:
in regaining an effective work-life balance
addressing return-to-work fears
support for severe mental health conditions.
Crucially, it makes the point that instead of labelling people experiencing poor mental health by diagnosis, discussions and support, based on the impact it has on them at work is more important.
Details, and suggestions of action employers may now want to consider for employees working at home or returning to the workplace, are given on the site, with references to HR issues.
Mental wellbeing while staying at home
The NHS is by definition a leading source of mental health advice and emphasises that taking care of the mind as well as the body is important for people working from home.
It lists simple sensible steps to defuse practical fears and stressful situations caused by the coronavirus that ferment mental health problems (see www.nhs.uk).
Concerns about finances, one's own health or that of relatives, friends and colleagues, the threat of unemployment, boredom, frustration and loneliness affect most people but are normally resolved naturally, although everyone reacts differently.
With the additional pressures of the pandemic, it recommends basic actions and activities that are broadly covered by the heading below, although it is important to read the full details.
Check employment and benefits rights
Worrying about work and money can adversely affect mental health. Talking to employers, understanding sick pay and benefit rights, or alternatively finding out about Government support for small businesses and self-employment can make a big difference.
Plan practical things
Working out how to secure household supplies, and continuing treatment or support for existing physical or mental health problems, plus medicines and repeat prescriptions, takes away basic pressures. You can also become part of other people's solution networks. Local authorities and other organisations can help, too.
Stay connected with others
Maintaining healthy relationships with trusted people is important for mental wellbeing whether by phone, messaging, video calls or social media.
Talk out your worries
Sharing concerns with others can help both parties. As an alternative, there are numerous dedicated helplines to call.
Look after your body
Physical health affects how we feel and it can be easy to fall into unhealthy behaviour patterns that make things worse. Healthy well-balanced meals, drinking enough water and regular exercise are important — including indoor exercising and free online classes.
Stay on top of difficult feelings
Over-reacting can make things worse. Focus on the things that can be controlled — what you can do, how you act, who you speak to, and using reliable information sources — makes things easier.
Avoid news marathons
Limiting time spent watching, reading or listening to pandemic news, including on social media, to a few specific times each day can also reduce tension.
Continue enjoyable things
Being worried can block out good things. Focus instead on favourite hobbies, or start new ones, plus reading, safe games, cooking, baking, drawing and painting to turn things round. Many free tutorials and courses are also available online. And there are always Zoom quizzes!
Take time to relax
Time out can help with difficult emotions and tensions while also improving wellbeing. Guidance for relaxation techniques is available online.
Good-quality sleep makes a big difference to how we feel; establishing and maintaining regular sleeping patterns with good sleep practices is important.
The lengthening Covid-19 crisis is having an increasingly negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of staff members and self-employed workers, as well as employers and business leaders themselves.
In some cases, this a medical issue that requires the attention of qualified health professionals. However, extensive support and guidance from specialist mental health organisations and charities to help employees work through less critical problems can be found online.
Many other sources of information address the same spectrum but with additional work-related guidance. They include:
Mental health in the workplace, NHS Employers
Mental health conditions, work and the workplace, Health and Safety Executive