The Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health in the Pandemic research has confirmed what we already knew; that loneliness has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and remote working. Loneliness has been an important factor contributing to higher levels of distress, resulting from people’s sense of isolation and reduced ability to connect with others.
Mental Health Awareness Week, now in its 21st year, runs from 9-15 May. This year, the Foundation is raising awareness of the impact of loneliness on our mental health. As well as seeking professional help and employers supporting staff, there are lots of things we can do to help ourselves too.
Mental health first aid is just as important as physical health first aid. Justine Campbell, EY’s UK&I Talent Managing Partner, says more than 700 of the firm’s staff in the UK are now trained in Mental Health First Aid, to spot signs of distress and work to mitigate the effects: “We treat mental and physical health on an equal footing and work hard to create an inclusive culture at EY, where all our people feel they can talk openly. We’ve found that equipping our people with the skills and knowledge to help identify colleagues who might be struggling can be really impactful and can encourage colleagues to talk more openly about their experiences.”
Emersion from cold water. Admittedly, you have to immerse yourself first, but the idea of cold-water dipping is gaining traction among the public, particularly following the recent BBC series with self-styled iceman Wim Hoff. This is not for everyone and should be tried with great caution and always in the company of others because it involves risks. That said, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that cold water immersion can improve anxiety, depression and general wellbeing. Walking, of course, is another great way to decompress.
Nurture your interests. Taking time out to enjoy other passions, whether that be gardening, reading, writing or napping, is vital to our wellbeing. Mental health experts expound the benefits of spending 30 minutes to an hour daily on gentle hobbies that are immersive and help people be ‘in the moment’.
Take a deep breath. In our busy lives we spend a lot of time ‘shallow breathing’. Take a few minutes a day (ideally in a calm setting) to breathe deeply and consciously and you may be surprised how much calmer you feel. “Sometimes work can become overwhelming, but good breathing can be powerful. So, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed at work, have five minutes to yourself and take a deep breath. It’s amazing how effective this simple technique can be,” says Lee Biggins, Founder and CEO of jobs board CV-Library.
Allow yourself some self-care. Taking time out for yourself will not only benefit you but those around you. “People are often resistant to the notion of self-care. On a cultural level, we tend to feel it makes us weak or self-indulgent. It can take a long time to admit to ourselves when we’re struggling. The reality is that it can be painful to let go of a certain view we have of ourselves. If you feel yourself slipping, ask yourself what advice you might give to someone who confided in you if they were feeling the same way. Are you, yourself, following that advice?” says Kirsty Lilley, Mental Health Expert at caba, the occupational charity that supports ICAEW members.
Learn to say ‘no’. It might feel counter intuitive especially at work but learning to say no to things is an art best learnt early. “To boost our mental fitness, we need to accept what we can or can’t change and that we can’t control everything. While we can’t change the increasing demands on our time, we control what we say yes or no to. Decide today to say no more often because you can’t do everything demanded of your time, and you can’t please everyone," says Uche Ezichi, an executive coach and author of Count the Cost: The 5 Unspoken Rules of Sustainable Success.
Honest speaking. Take time out during your week to recognise how you feel and acknowledge your emotions. “An early warning system can keep stress at bay,” says creative agency boss Mark Simmonds, the author of new book, Beat Stress At Work. “Five questions benchmark you against your best self. 1: Are you enjoying your work? 2: Are you doing plenty of fun stuff outside work? 3: How well are you sleeping? 4: Are you exercising sufficiently? 5: Are you helping others in need? One rule only: answer honestly!”
Empathetic leadership. Employers increasingly recognise that it is difficult to hide their own true emotions if things are not going well, especially if it’s linked to work. “We need to provide people with cognitive strategies to thrive in a volatile world. If we want to change the health and wellbeing of our people in a business context, we must shift our focus to helping people rewire their brains so that they can healthily respond to the world in which they live. In simple terms, we shift our minds, we automatically change our emotions,” says organisational psychologist Dr Lynda Folan.
Avoid comparisons. In a world of daily Instagram scrolling, you can be forgiven for thinking everyone else’s lives are nothing less than perfect. On the flip side, so-called doom scrolling – on the rise due to the Ukraine-Russian conflict – can make us feel equally hopeless. “It’s far too easy to feel as though your stress isn’t serious enough to warrant help. We need only look at the suffering being reported every day on the news and then wonder: If I’ve got a good job, am earning money and have a comfortable home, why should I deserve help?” says caba’s Lilley.
Learn new tools to tackle loneliness. If you’re working remotely a lot of the time, it pays to seek out new groups in your local community for exercise or simply companionship or ask your employers to offer some help. To tie in with Mental Health Awareness Week, accountancy firm HW Fisher is offering team members access to free yoga sessions, workshops on how to deal with difficult situations and simple techniques on how to look after one’s mental health. “We also see these sessions as an opportunity to bring the whole team together and to remind them that support is readily available for them whenever they need it,” says Lily Montgomery, Partner and Human Resources at HW Fisher.
Togetherness is vital. A sense of wellbeing often comes from a feeling of connection and closeness to others. “Organisations have to get creative and find ways of replicating the sense of togetherness that employees got from working in an office five days a week before the pandemic. For employees who live alone or who live far from family, these initiatives can really help to give people a much-needed mental health boost,” says Anna Rasmussen, Founder & CEO of performance management platform OpenBlend.
Help the body take care of the mind. Healthy body, healthy mind, as the saying goes. However much you’d rather lie on the sofa in front of the TV when you’re feeling down, it won’t improve your wellbeing. Keep active, especially during the summer months when the days are longer, and you can absorb more vitamin D. Exercise also makes your brain release feel-good chemicals. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of the body in such a way that it can support the mind. Eating well and taking part in regular periods of gentle exercise are important.” But do allow yourself time to rest, too; good sleep is essential, as is taking rest breaks throughout the day, Lilley says. “Our minds need opportunities to pause and catch up before we throw ourselves into another challenging task.”
- Access useful resources and find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week
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