Looking after your mental health while working during coronavirus
Page last reviewed: 11 September 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 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.