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Mental health: are we running out of steam in the ‘new normal’?

9 October 2020: In the face of ongoing threats and uncertainties, how can we protect our mental health and that of our colleagues during the next phase of the pandemic?

This year’s World Mental Health day, on 10 October, comes with the goal of increased investment in mental health and the reasoning behind this is as stark as it is obvious. 

Six months in and the effects of COVID-19 on our wellbeing show no signs of letting up. The initial impact of lockdown – and the seismic changes it wrought in our working, home and social lives – have been well-documented. Research into the mental health impacts of lockdown show many people reported fatigue, poor work-life balance, increased alcohol consumption, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and social isolation. 

According to ONS figures, one in five adults in June 2020 was likely to be experiencing some form of depression, almost double the one in 10 experiencing this in the nine months before the pandemic. And mental health charity Mind found that three in five adults surveyed felt their mental health had deteriorated during lockdown. 

One of the protective factors for many people, at least initially, was a degree of optimism that the threat we were dealing with was temporary, and things would return to normal in a few months. But our faith in the likelihood of a resolution in the near future is waning. 

In the early days of lockdown, more than half of adults surveyed by ONS thought life would be back to normal within six months. By late August, this had fallen to 14%, with over one-third of adults now suspecting it would be "more than a year".

Six-month wall

The pandemic continues to affect all the key occupational stressors identified by the Health and Safety Executive – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. We’ve had to deal with new and often greater demands, changes in working and living patterns, shifting relationships, and new ways of supporting each other. We’ve also experienced much uncertainty and a lack of control over what is going to happen next.

As we move beyond the six-month mark in the crisis, we’re not only facing a second wave of the virus, but also the stark reality of the associated economic downturn. Dr Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, recently highlighted the challenges presented by the “six-month wall” in any sustained crisis.

Dr Ahmad, who has worked in disaster zones over long periods, noted how although we “have all adjusted to this ‘new normal’, we might now feel like we’re running out of steam.” So, with winter coming, cases rising and the prospect of ongoing and shifting restrictions, how can we get through what she calls this “next major adaptation phase?”

In this phase, the longer-term economic realities are increasingly hitting home, with many businesses closing, restructuring or making large-scale redundancies. Accountants and other finance professionals are in the front line of dealing with the virus’s economic fallout. Already they have been dealing with clients and businesses struggling to adapt to new financial realities, or even on the verge of collapse. And these extra demands have been further compounded by pressure to help secure the financial future of businesses, including by navigating the array of government-backed financial support packages. 

Most finance professionals have been adjusting to working from home since lockdown began, but after a few tentative steps back to the office for some, the official advice reverted to “work from home if you can”. Such abrupt changes are likely to add to feelings of uncertainty and lack of control, both of which are known to increase anxiety and stress.

Natural response

In moving forward, we need to recognise the ongoing threats to our mental health, and that of our colleagues, families and friends. We also need to recognise that our feelings are a natural response to an extraordinary set of circumstances. At work, think about:

  • continuing to connect with colleagues via online meetings, virtual groups and social media
  • maintaining boundaries between work and home, for example, taking regular breaks, having a routine and continuing to book days off
  • remaining aware of the signs and symptoms of poor mental health
  • listening to employees, colleagues and clients, and encouraging them to talk
  • reviewing workloads and demands, and updating plans, objectives and priorities
  • focusing on achievements and things that make you feel positive.

At an organisational level, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests employers and managers carry out a “listening exercise”, asking staff about their mental health and wellbeing, and what support they need.

More broadly, the Mental Health Foundation offers the following tips on dealing with uncertainty: 

  • focus on the present – you can only do your best with what you have today. As rules and regulations change, try and concentrate on the moment
  • look at the things that are certain – although many things are uncertain, there are also things reasons for hope. Appreciate the certainties and the good things, and take opportunities to relax
  • talk to people you trust – discuss how you feel, and don’t dismiss your concerns or judge yourself too severely.

CABA – which offers support to past and present ICAEW members and staff, ACA students, and their close families – has produced a range of guides on maintaining good mental health during the pandemic, including how to adjust to the new normal.