Looking after your mental health while working during the coronavirus outbreak
Page last reviewed: 9 July 2020
Our working lives have been changing for a while now – but the emergence of coronavirus pandemic has led to a massive change, more uncertainty, and new challenges for many of us.
This page is about mental health and work during the coronavirus outbreak.
For more general tips on looking after your mental health at work you can download our guide 'How to support mental health at work'.
Returning to work as lockdown eases
Our working lives were changed enormously when lockdown started. As lockdown eases, our working lives will change again.
For many of us coming out of lockdown is not a choice. Across the country people are being called to return to work, even when the official advice is to work from home wherever possible. Sometime this won’t be possible and the prospect of return carries with it a need to weigh up the potential safety risks to ourselves and family, with the need to earn money, restart the economy or provide service to others.
We may have a lot of mixed feelings about coming back to work – it may be exciting and something we’ve wished for or we may be angry that we are being forced back too fast. We may be worried about public transport and social distancing on the job. We may be or angry or frustrated with our employers, or at the guidelines available from government for our industry. It may be that the circumstances of our work cause us anxiety or frustration– especially if other people’s choices or behaviours increases our risk of catching the virus.
If you are on furlough, you may have found ways to occupy your time – with family commitments, volunteering, hobbies or by learning new skills. Reconnecting with work might take time, and hopefully you will have time to plan when you are likely to back, or even have the opportunity to return gradually.
It’s worth approaching a return to work like a return from any long absence – gradually picking up routines and setting down the things you’ve been doing during lockdown. Equally, you may have been furloughed recently as the scheme closed for new entrants. If so there is a lot of advice out there from people who have furlough experience – but rest might by high on your agenda and if so, that is OK.
Try and find out what support is available to you through your work, and use things like employee assistance services. You could consider joining a union or trade association for advice and information about what others are doing. If you are a manager, take time to check in with your teams and be aware of the mental health challenges or returning. If you aren’t back in the workplace quite yet, you could think about ways you might be able to reconnect with colleagues within the rules – socially distanced walks or meet-ups are good ways to start thinking about work again.
As with any period of intense and unrelieved stress, when the stress is lifted, there is sometimes an impact on physical or mental health. It’s possible that as lockdown eases, you may realise how hard it has been and you may get unwell, or low.
It’s important that you try and use things like annual leave to recharge even if the instinct is not to. If you have children, taking time off in the summer holidays can be very restorative – if you aren’t working and there isn’t the pressure to deliver school work and work in total lockdown you may find that you can all relax and recover.
If you’ve been going to work as normal throughout lockdown, things might not seem to change much to start with – but as traffic increases, and more people are going about their lives the pressures on key workers of all sorts will increase, but the demands may not fall. As we move forward, we have to recognise the burdens borne by key workers across the economy and ensure that key workers from NHS staff to delivery drivers are able to recover and process trauma and the impacts of intense work. If you are a key worker, it might mean making space and time you recover, and making use of support available to you.
Tips for home and remote working
IT and technology
For many of us IT and technology will be a lifeline during a period when our working patterns will change. However, for some of us, the move to spending a lot of our working time online may take some adjusting to, especially if we find technology difficult or overwhelming. Here are some things you can do to help you adjust:
- Ask for help with IT – from your IT department and from your colleagues. Wherever possible try and use equipment provided by work - but if you find that there is no alternative, you can use most conference software on your mobile and tablet.
- Use online training to learn new skills - Microsoft and other companies provide remote working software and have good, free videos available to help you.
- Try and use video calls whenever you can - there's no substitute for seeing another person's face. If videoconferencing is not available to you, then you can try using WhatsApp video for basic video calls with close colleagues. Try and keep the routines that you had with your colleagues before the outbreak, for example if you'd check in with colleagues in person in the office - check in with them virtually as well - whether by video or by call/email.
- Try and keep your work channels clear for work topics. Create social channels on your intranet or messenger tool to create a space to stay connected and social with your work colleagues outside of work topics, such as sharing recipes or sharing photos of your pets
- Think about your digital working style and how it fits with others in your team - you need to find a rhythm.
Getting into a routine
Working from home or remotely can be very challenging and isolating. Sometimes our attention wanders, or we miss people.
A structured day can be a good way to address this:
- Designate a place to work that is as free of distractions as you can make it.
- Set a routine for working at home - it's important to get up and get started, to take regular breaks including a lunch break, and to finish working and turn off at an appropriate time.
- No matter how tempting, avoid working in your pyjamas all day. Try not to lose all your daily routines at once.
- Try and set clear tasks for the day - three major decisions or activities is a good day's work - but keep an eye on ongoing tasks too.
- Have a proper lunch break. Stop, make something nice to eat, and eat away from your work area. Try and get outside and get some natural light if you can do so safely, and try some exercise, again within guidelines on social contact.
- Use your diary to clearly say to others when you are working and when you are available to speak.
- When you are done for the day, pack away your work things or leave your work area at the end of the day.
- If you are home-schooling or looking after children whilst trying to work, have a conversation with work about those realities. Try and set up a routine whereby you have distinct times for working and for helping with school time. Dividing your attention may leave both things suffering..
Keep up the formal and social flow of work
It's really important that structured and unstructured connections with work and colleagues carry on whilst people are working remotely or flexibly:
- If you are a manager, discuss with your teams how you'd like to run supervision, check-ins, and sign offs remotely. Let people know how and when to contact you.
- Try to use video for all formal discussions, and any discussions where you are checking in on someone’s well-being - the non-verbal communication is key for this.
- Follow-up video chats or calls with a quick note with a summary of the actions to take, or your understanding of the major points to ensure that things are clear.
- Use video calling software for informal chats - soup, sandwich and Skype lunches - or virtual coffee catch-ups for example.
- If a new starter joins your team during this period, have a video conference induction with them. Acknowledge they’re not starting under ideal circumstances and this might stress them out on top of the common stress of wanting to demonstrate their skills and fit for the new job.
- Consider having break or lunch buddies to encourage you to take a break or a lunch break - or check in with your team at the end of the day to update on what you've done - work and otherwise that day.
- Try and keep a separation between work and personal - think for example before connecting with colleagues you wouldn't ordinarily link with on things like Facebook and respect the boundaries people have between work and home life.
Use the support that's available
This is a challenging time for all of us – and whether we are at work or not many employers provide support.
- Many employers offer employee assistance programmes, and wider benefits. Use these wherever you need to - many have dedicated apps and websites and they aren't just about counselling.
- If you have ongoing health or mental health conditions, even if they aren't disclosed, your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments. In this case this could include home working, additional support from managers, or equipment.
- It's quite likely that we will need to accept a certain amount of distress and anxiety relating to the outbreak, in the short and medium term. If you have self-care techniques that work for you, try and make sure that you have what you need. You may need to think differently - for example doing exercise workouts from videos instead of attending classes. You may want to consider looking at mindfulness practice or finding ways to help others in your community.
Tips for Employers and Leaders
1. Share reputable sources and follow official advice from:
Encourage employees not to share too much information about the virus. Only articles from reputable sources should be circulated as there is a lot of speculation out there.
2. Talk to your people
You could keep in regular, possibly daily contact with your people - both the general population, and with managers and supervisors.
Try to be honest, and start by acknowledging the uncertainty and the stress it causes. Be prepared to say that you don't know and that you will come back to people with answers.
This is important whether people are in the workplace or at home. Make sure that alongside regular communication with all staff, you also communicate with line managers.
3. Everyone has mental health - consider the impact this has across the board
We all have mental health, and whatever our circumstance this outbreak is going to have an impact on how we think and feel about ourselves and the world we live in. Good work is great for our mental health and it's important that we preserve the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of work wherever we can.
Some people are at greater risk of poor mental health. When you plan your response, consider how it affects staff with protected characteristics (sex, age, disability, race, sexual orientation etc.) or other challenges (e.g. how people from Asian or Italian backgrounds may be facing discriminatory behaviours) - and adjust accordingly. Try to act in a way that protects the physical and mental health of staff - starting with those who are at greatest need.
4. Remember vulnerability has many faces
There is a lot of talk of physical vulnerabilities in relation to the coronavirus. But senior managers will feel vulnerable too in demonstrating leadership in unusual circumstances. Help each other stay composed by encouraging and reminding how good a job they’re doing.
This can be a particularly difficult time for people with pre-existing or past mental health problems. Staying at home may be bringing back memories of bad times to people who have experienced depression or trauma. Know your people and do a little extra for those who are more vulnerable if you notice changes in their behaviour.
These circumstances might lead people to disclose mental health problems they have previously not discussed at work. Treat new disclosures with respect and compassion and make adjustments.
5. Promote access to support
You may provide access to support services through your workplace - if you do, make sure these are advertised well and find out whether there are specific resources relating to the outbreak.
Make sure people also know where they go and who they talk to internally. If you have mental health champions, allies or mental health first aiders make sure they have the latest information, and that if you change working practices that this network of mental health support carries on if possible.
6. Use technology for work and social aspects of work
Offer advice for those not used to working remotely and provide equipment and support for staff to keep in touch with each other.
Encourage people to maintain informal conversations too if they are working virtually. You may have an instant messenger or intranet like Slack or MS Teams - but text messages and calls work as well. You could also try video call lunches and coffee chats and virtual birthday celebrations. Regular check-ins with teams is a good idea.
7. See opportunities for growth and development alongside crisis planning
Consider whether there are tasks that you can do if regular business is disrupted - planning, staff development, and catching up on admin jobs are all possible things that can be done that increase your readiness to resume business as usual later. If you are able, connect staff to volunteering opportunities, community support schemes and local food banks.
8. Encourage personal planning and self-care
Encourage your people to plan for how they will manage under self-isolation, or quarantine. Check our regularly updated advice, and encourage people to discuss their plans with line managers. If people are at home social distancing or self-isolating with symptoms keep in touch.
Coming into work where necessary
If you are an essential worker coming to work during the epidemic, thank you for everything you are doing in our communities.
It will feel unusual, and may add to the anxiety you feel, or that loved ones feel for you.
- If you can reduce your travel, consider doing so, or changing the method of transport you use or the times you travel to reduce peak travel and increase the distance between you and others so that you can observe social distancing guidelines.
- Maintain the scrupulous hygiene measures advised by authorities. Hand washing, catching sneezes and coughs, and not touching your face are still a key strand in preventing the virus spreading.
- The virus is likely to be a hot topic of conversation at work. Try to minimise gossip and hearsay about both the news and personal stories of things you've heard and people you know. It can help dial back people's anxiety.
- Look for specific advice from your union, trade organisations and trade press. This resource from the intensive care society is a good example of where vital staff at the front line can be supported and support each other.
The Mental Health Foundation is committed to bringing readers reliable and relevant information. All of our pages are written and regularly reviewed by our mental health experts, in line with official advice on the coronavirus outbreak.
We need your support to keep providing vital information during this time.