A pandemic within a pandemic?
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way’.
By Paul Verrico, Lawyer, Solicitor Advocate and Partner in the EHS and Crisis Management team at Eversheds Sutherland and qualified psychotherapist and TEDx speaker, Alexis Powell-Howard, Managing Director of Fortis Therapy, National small business of the year 2019.
It is 250 years since the events which Charles Dickens used as the basis of his best known literary work – but just like Dr Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, we are undoubtedly living in extraordinary times. Never before has freedom of physical movement been so constrained, whilst connectivity to the wider world remains so high. Uncertainty lingers like an unwelcome visitor as every family models how the pandemic’s consequences will affect its future. People’s response to the health crisis facing all members of society has been at times diametrically opposite: some folk showing ‘the age of wisdom’ – self-isolating at the earliest opportunity whilst others freely socialise in seaside resorts or in public houses to the last possible moments (the age of foolishness). Most of us have experienced moments of darkness and despair as we consider the potential illness which may affect us or loved ones.
It doesn’t stop there: for employers, faced with a workforce which is either working remotely for an enforced long period or suddenly idle, the legal responsibility to help employees with work-related mental health issues is an additional concern which may seem secondary to the primary mission of keeping the business afloat. Nevertheless, a ‘pandemic’ of poor mental health may be a seemingly unavoidable result of physical isolation. Rather than add to the weighty matters which occupy organisational managers, we wanted to offer some pointers that may help your staff ‘access the spring of hope’ as society is locked down to minimise the virus’ spread.
2019 saw many organisations starting to engage in a far more meaningful way with employee wellbeing and good mental health. Much thinking was given to peer to peer support, mental health first aid and centrally accessible support functions. In these straitened times, more thought may need to be given to individual coping strategies with less paternalistic face to face support to create long-term, sustainable coping mechanisms.
Our clients report that many people (employees and their families and customers) are becoming increasingly worried about the growing response to coronavirus, triggering anxiety and acts of obsessive compulsive behaviours. Typical out of character behaviours include :
- Frenzied updates from the news and on social media;
- Worries about friends and family and those categorised as vulnerable;
- OCD and a change or lack of usual routines;
- Loneliness during self-isolation; and
- Schools, childcare and children’s wellbeing fears.
Managing COVID19 anxiety
The fear pandemic is something that each of us has to manage – anxiety loves the words ‘what if’ – so how can you manage your head and overcome your feelings when they are overwhelming and how can you help others who may be struggling too?
- Scale how you feel from 1-10 – with ‘1’ being the worst you have ever felt, and ‘10’ being the best you’ve ever felt. What number are you right now? It is a subjective measure, but it is a useful one. Whatever number you are, how can you increase it by 1? What do you need to do, and who can help you? We are all on an emotional ‘rollercoaster’ – re-set your head every day, with rational information – avoid going down the rabbit hole for long. It is ok to be uncertain and feel sad for a short time, but then you need to ‘act’ to improve your mood.
- Accept the advice we are being given – acceptance can be hard and we are frightened. Rebelling against it will prolong the time need to practice social distancing and isolation. Being separated is not our natural response and so the more accountable we can be, and the more responsible we are by making good choices, the better. As someone who always finds a way around the rules, I know my instinct is to rebel, but I also know what’s good for me and my family in the long term. So, let’s just do as we are told.
- Manage your self-talk – how are you talking to yourself in your head? Would you talk to anyone else like that? If you wouldn’t, then be kinder to yourself, even if you change how you are speaking to yourself just once a day (you don’t have to believe it!) it will make a difference to how you feel. Change the negative words to positive, be nurturing, embrace your weird.
- Recognise what you can control and influence – you have control over you and can influence the people around you in your physical household and any vulnerable persons who depend on you, the rest falls in to the ‘circle of concern’ which is a reactive and less positive place to be and causes anxiety and panic. It is important to recognise what you can choose to let go of.
- Ask for help – are you good at asking for help or do you avoid it? Think about who can help you, and who you can help. We are in this together, and if we don’t help one another, then the tougher this will be. Reciprocity is something that we use in business – help others for the right reasons, and that good stuff comes back to you (at some point!). There are many local groups (rotary, church groups, citizens groups) who may be able to help.
- Take time out – Manage social media and news access – our brains are not meant to function 24 hours a day. Decide on your trusted news provider and check in with that source only. Social media is NOT reliable – for instance, just before the prime minister’s briefing on 23 March, speculation ranged from ‘they are going to send helicopters to drop a disinfectant to kill the virus at midnight’ to ‘the army is going to shoot people who move around’ – both wildly off the mark. Follow Boris Johnson’s briefings, he’s in charge of the decisions that are being made, then switch it off because the rest is supposition, for the most part.
- Avoid your head catastrophising – when we catastrophise, we look to the worst-case scenario. At the moment, the worst case is being ill and dying, or losing someone we love. The balance of evidence to this, is that if we follow the advice, we are minimising the chances greatly. There are also more people who are recovering from the virus than are dying from it, however that is not reported on in the press. An article on the BBC recently discussed that the death rate we would ‘normally’ expect at this time of year has not been taken in to account in the statistics. Added to this, in many areas in the country, the numbers are low if not non-existent at the moment, so the immediate threat is again, currently, minimal, and can continue to be so, if we all take responsibility for our actions, and follow the advice.
- Manage your time – either plan together, with the household – can you have a shared timetable? Take breaks together even if homeschooling. We are all in the same boat and there needs to be boundaries in place, but be mindful of your energy levels and work/be active when they are high so you are effective (don’t be too hard on yourself if energy levels dip!).
- Access therapy – the power of having a safe space to talk, cannot be underestimated to help you to be well. You might not be able to see someone face to face, but feedback Fortis Therapy is getting from clients, who are using the different technologies on offer (phone, skype, zoom, whats app, facetime) has been really positive, saying that it is as good as sitting in a room with their therapist.
- Stay in touch – keep contact with each other (phone, skype, zoom, whatsapp, houseparty etc.). Writing letters, have virtual coffee breaks with family, friends and colleagues, anything that keeps you connected.
- Have a purpose – if you are working from home, keep to your routines, our heads like routine and being organised! If you are not working, decide what you would like to do, see the time as an opportunity, are there jobs or interests that you have not had time to do that you can use this time to explore? Look at online courses.
- Look at your finances – Whilst there either is, or will be financial hardship, there is a lot of information out there that is free and can help to navigate through what is available. Ask for help, pick up the phone and negotiate what you need.
- Clear your space – your environment can reflect how your head is! Clear the clutter, feel in control of your space. As the Scunthorpe United manager Nigel Adkins famously said ‘we have to control the controllables’ – in a time when there are things we can’t control, taking control of what you can is important.
- Exercise – whatever that means to you. Walking (whilst distancing), a hiit session, weights (if you have them), cycling…..whatever – expand your lung capacity and increase your heart rate. It is possible that you could be more healthy and fit at the end of this time, than at the beginning! Avoid activities such as paddleboarding, surfing and kayaking at this time to avoid depending on skeleton emergency services. Journeying to a lake is not ‘essential travel’.
- Avoid self-medicating – using alcohol, substances, smoking, food, etc. as a coping mechanism, is counter -productive for your mental and physical health. Do something more positive!
- Be creative – being creative can be really therapeutic. If your first response to this is ‘I’m not creative at all’, think again! Creativity can take many different guises. This could be anything from drawing, colouring, writing, gardening, cooking, doing a jigsaw, playing with Lego, starting an on line community group – again, whatever works for you.
- Humour – we are British! Humour is our birth right – so use it. Having worked in mental health services for years and being the mum to three children, I know I use humour (I have to!) – it’s a great way of lifting our mood and feeling more perspective.
- Buffer children – children and young people have access to all sort of information now. Be mindful of the conversations you have with them and in front of them. They need us as adults, to make sense of what is happening in an age appropriate way. They will remember how we dealt with this and it will inform their learned responses in the future.
- Rest well, eat well – this has been the basic advice for many years for a reason. It is imperative that we fuel ourselves in the right way and give ourselves a chance for recovery. We may not have the foods we would like to have at the moment, not due to supply issues, but due to people issues, but there are different foods you could have. If you are a key worker and work feels relentless at the moment, as a minimum, rest when you can and ask for help when you need it.
- Be grateful – this sounds like a really counsellory thing to say, but it’s true. Being grateful for what and who we have in our lives, and our current health situation, grounds us and helps us to focus less on what we feel we don’t have – it’s a great antidote to fear and anxiety.
Let’s do all we can to move to the spring of hope – feel free to share this article with your staff or use the information within it as a springboard for conversations with your team on what they can do to stay well.
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