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How to look after your mental health in a world of ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions

Dr Maggi Evans, Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant and Coach, Mosaic Consulting

Due to the reports of increased poor mental health as a result of the pandemic, this year, World Mental Health Day seems more relevant and important than ever.

Of course, for those suffering, there are some fantastic resources out there, reminding us of the things we can do to help ourselves keep mentally healthy during these difficult times (and beyond). For example, the UK charity, Mind has a list of seven ideas to help, including connecting with people, taking care with news and information, and practical ways of helping to manage anxiety.

How changing lockdown and social distancing restrictions impact our mental health

In addition to these approaches, we need to recognise the very specific stresses relating to what’s going on right now, with the ever-changing lockdown and social distancing restrictions being experienced around the world.

Whereas in the early days of lockdown we knew the rules and had a sense of how long they would last, many of us are now in a very different scenario. Rules can vary dramatically by country, by town, by school and by household. One minute we may be planning to meet with friends, the next we might be banned from mixing with other households or receiving a phone call from the ‘track and trace’ service, being told to self-isolate. From a work point of view, we might be planning a face-to-face team meeting, designing a social media campaign or forecasting client demand – things that we may approach very differently depending on current lockdown rules. Things are more uncertain than ever, and we need to find ways to keep going whilst protecting our mental health.

In ‘normal times’, many of us manage the stresses and strains of our daily lives very effectively – we plan, we organise, we prioritise, we prepare, we look forward to special events and occasions. These behaviours give us a sense of certainty, control and optimism – things that are all really important in maintaining our good mental health. But in a world of ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, planning, prioritising and preparing can feel impossible, pointless even, which can negatively impact our mental health.

The three ‘cons’ of maintaining good mental health during this time

So, how can we help ourselves? How can we support our team members? What additional strategies can we use? Here are three things we can do:

1. Contingency planning. One way to manage the uncertainty is to develop your plan as normal before working out which bits may be disrupted by current unknowns (such as a change in lockdown or social distancing rules). Each element of your plan could have a parallel plan, a ‘Plan B’ based on a different way of achieving the same (or similar) outcome. This works along the lines of ‘if this happens, I will do this, if that happens, I will do that’. This can work at home, for example, if you are inviting friends round for a meal, the main goal is to spend time together and have a shared experience. If there’s a ban on meeting in people’s houses, you could meet in a restaurant, if restaurants are also closed, you could get a takeaway from the same place, buy the same wine and set up Skype/Zoom/Microsoft Teams or FaceTime so that you still have a shared experience. At work, contingency planning is well established, but may need to be more openly used and talked through. For example, which of your accounts are at risk of reducing or cancelling orders if the restrictions change or persist? What would you do in each scenario? What would you do if key members of your team contracted COVID-19 and were unwell for a significant period of time – how would you cover the work? What would you do if a face-to-face meeting was cancelled because of lockdown? You may not be able to ‘plug and play’ the same agenda etc., but if you’re clear on the overall purpose, you should be able to find a contingency that creates a sense of control and can enable you to be confident that you can still achieve your aims – boosting your mental health.

2. Continuity of routines. Having just read about contingency, it might be a bit strange to read about the other end of the spectrum – continuity. One challenge of changing lockdown rules is the disruption to our routines, the things that give rhythm to our lives. You may no longer be going into an office and getting your favourite coffee, you may have kids that are starting school at different times, your gym may be closed… It can feel as if everything that is or was familiar to you has been upended. Within this, it’s very helpful to identify some routines and stable points in your day (or week) that you can rely on. It might be getting up at the same time and going for a walk, it might be a weekly call with friends, a daily check-in at the same time with your team… things that you can rely on that create a stable framework, even if the rest of it is in chaos!

3. Control. Lots of mental health advice shows how important it is to take control where you can. For example, many people find watching the news makes them feel anxious and overwhelmed. If this is the case for you, then try not to feed your anxiety, but take control and limit how much you watch the news and when (just before bedtime may impact your sleep). You can also take control of positive things in your life – if speaking with friends makes you feel better, then make sure it’s in the diary (with a contingency in case you can’t meet up!).  On the work front, control is also important. You may need to speak with your manager to agree how you can work through these uncertain times and what support you need from them. You may need to speak with your team to agree some ground rules about when you are and are not available to help them, and to have an open discussion about how your needs and availability will change in different forms of lockdown. You won’t be able to control everything, but if you identify your main stressors, you may be able to do something to reduce them.

So, to help you with the challenge of the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, we suggest the three ‘cons’ – contingency, continuity and control. And remember to keep hold of another important ‘con’ – to connect! This is always important, if we’re in lockdown, in the ‘next normal’ or moving between the two.

About this author

Maggi is an experienced consultant and coach with international experience across a wide range of sectors including professional services, financial services, retail and FMCG. She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and combines research and practice to develop practical solutions to drive business improvement.

Maggi has been a consultant for over 20 years, specialising in talent strategy and talent development. She has a reputation as an insightful consultant, helping clients to reduce the ‘noise’ around an issue so they can focus and act on key issues which will make a difference. Maggi is on a mission to help organisations, leaders and individuals to liberate talent. Her first book ‘From Talent Management to Talent Liberation’ has recently been published.

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