There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a year like no other. The devastating effects of the pandemic have touched everyone—being both a health and an economic crisis in one. Loneliness and anxiety is on the rise, in July 3.28 million Australians were either unemployed, or wanting more work and Australia was pushed into its first recession in almost 30 years. What’s worse, there’s no end in sight as to how long we’ll be living with the virus or the accompanying levels of stress and uncertainty.
One organisation that has been at the coalface of the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of the nation is Beyond Blue. The mental health organisation has been focused on supporting people affected by anxiety, depression and suicide for 20 years.
This year has been one of their busiest and most challenging to date. Not only because they’ve been dealing with “increases of up to 60%” in terms of people accessing their services, but because while they’re an organisation that supports all Australians, their head office is based in Melbourne. Beyond Blue’s workforce has been in lockdown for months—tackling their own issues of isolation and having had their worlds turned upside down too.
Indeed spoke to Patrice O’Brien, Chief Community Officer at Beyond Blue, to discuss how individuals can best look after their mental health during this unprecedented time of change and uncertainty, signs to look out for that you or someone you know might not be okay, what employers can do to better help their teams cope with extra challenges they might be dealing with, and strategies to help you create a better work-life balance.
As a Melburnian how have you been coping with lockdown?
It’s been pretty surreal. I feel very lucky though. For people like me who have kept their job, have lots of friends and family within a 5km radius of their home, and have been able to go for walks each day to get fresh air—it’s not great, but it hasn’t been the most traumatic experience. For others though, it has been really hard.
At Beyond Blue, we’ve had the busiest year of our lives. We’ve all been working remotely since March and going through this experience working with kids at home for months, or living alone for a long time. Lots of our employees haven’t been able to see their families who live interstate. We’ve been working hard trying to look after our staff, while they’re trying to look after the rest of the country.
Has Beyond Blue experienced an increase in the use of its services since the COVID-19 outbreak?
We know that one in five people in Australia will experience a mental health condition in any given year, and almost one in two will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. What’s happening now has helped shine more light on mental health. We’ve seen increased demand for Beyond Blue’s programs and services, including employers accessing our workplace program. They’re asking for guidance about how to support people through working remotely, about making challenging business decisions, and how to cope with a year that’s brought more uncertainty than most of us have ever experienced in our lives.
Have there been any common themes around the issues people are facing?
There have been a few main themes—primarily depression and anxiety exacerbated by loneliness and isolation, challenges with family and relationships, increased financial stress (a lot more than we usually deal with), and issues to do with work; either being unemployed, working from home and juggling family life, or just work being harder than usual.
Has the increased use of services such as Beyond Blue during this time helped to reduce the stigma around mental health?
It’s interesting what this pandemic is doing for mental health. Mental health has been coming out of the shadows for a while now, and there’s been a lot of work around stigma reduction. But what we’ve seen recently is people experiencing concerns with their mental health for the first time—people who have previously been able to manage. People are realising that this is not about ‘others’, this is ‘me’, this is ‘us’, this is ‘all of us’.
Interestingly, some people who have pre-existing mental health conditions and are well set up with support and treatment networks, have been handling this time really well. They have built up the skills, have them in place and know what to do to keep themselves going through all this. For the first time, others have been looking to them for guidance and help. It’s been a really fascinating thing to observe and I think that we may see a significant reduction in stigma around mental health moving forward.
Why is it important to create boundaries between ‘work life’ and ‘home life’?
The importance of boundaries has been heightened in this environment where many are working from home. It’s important to remember that not everyone is working from home though, and there’s been challenges and fears associated with that as well. For those who have been working from home for a long time, rituals are important. When you don’t get segregation between work and home, work can take over too much of your time and stresses can mount without you even realising.
When we talk about mental health, we talk about risk factors and protective factors. If work creeps into all aspects of the day, the protective factors drop away and that’s what starts to affect your mental health. Protective factors help to keep us well; things like exercising and connecting with other people, doing things you love and that bring you enjoyment. They help to keep us well.
It can be easy for work to blend into other spaces when working from home, but it’s important not to let that happen. Many people had rituals when they commuted to work. For example, I got up early and went to the gym and then made my way to work. You should create them around your home environment too. What’s good for one person might not work for others though, so it’s important to find the separation between work and home that actually works for your own unique situation.
How can businesses best support their employees who may be feeling isolated or struggling during this time?
I’ve heard lots of positive stories of employers supporting their employees who have been working remotely and providing a good level of care. Keeping some of the old work activities going like quizzes, coffee chats and Friday night catch ups (virtually of course) is a great idea. It’s also all of the little things you can do throughout the day. Think about individuals and what might make a difference in their day. It might be a simple note to someone saying ‘I’m thinking of you, I hope you’re ok’, providing positive feedback, or checking in on how things are going for them at home outside of work.
Where employers can allow for extra flexibility for work to be done during the day makes a big difference too, particularly for parents and carers who might need a little extra time in the morning or afternoons to take care of family. Allowing employees to work hours that suit, as long as they don’t affect overall productivity, will be better for everyone.
Keeping communications up and ensuring staff get the right information about the virus, and about what’s happening at work, is also really important. People should know where to go to get information and just to talk to someone if things are overwhelming. They should know where they can turn to be supported, like Employee Assistance Programs or Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service.
For those employees who are not working from home, or who are returning to the workplace, it’s also important to make sure that they feel well supported – and safe. Having appropriate COVID-safe plans and communicating these clearly to all employees is critical to ensuring that employees who have physically returned to work feel safe and secure and can help reduce any health anxiety about returning to work.
What are the warning signs to look out for that one of your colleagues, might not be okay?
When working remotely, it can be a bit trickier to detect if someone is not OK, especially when the obvious cues you might notice in person aren’t there, and you’re only seeing people briefly via video calls.
There are things to look out for though. If someone comes along to optional coffee catch ups and then suddenly stops attending. If they’re keeping their video off a lot during calls. Sometimes it’s warranted—we all know about those times when the internet won’t work—but if it’s unusual for them to do so, if they seem a bit snappy, not their usual selves, if they’re not smiling and interacting as they usually would, or are really quiet, it might be a sign they’re not coping well. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have a mental health condition, it might just be they’re going through a tough time.
Sometimes it can come across as a drop in performance and that can be confusing and harder to detect. Employers should always check in with individuals first before deferring to performance management. There may be a lot of other things going on for individuals, and understanding this, and what can be done to support them is usually far less time-consuming, and far more effective, than performance management that is not addressing the actual issue.
What about warning signs to look out for within yourself?
Some of the warning signs that we’re not coping so well can include changes in our behaviour, such as dropping off healthy habits like eating well, sleeping well and exercising, drinking more than usual, or overreacting to situations that would usually not worry us.
If people are noticing these signs in themselves, it’s important to acknowledge that these are normal reactions to what is an extraordinary situation.
What are some helpful actions for maintaining positive mental health whilst working from home?
The really simple things such as eating well, sleeping enough, exercising, connecting with other people, are all protective factors for your mental health, so although it sounds simple, that’s an important place to start. Also, consider having a break from news and social media from time to time.
For many of us working from home, work has taken over more of our lives than usual, so it’s also really important to think about how you can get this back in check. You need to make sure work doesn’t fill up every moment and you still find time to do things you enjoy.
If human connection is hard because of lockdown, connecting virtually or within restrictions is still really important.
One of the challenges that can be experienced working from home is the sense of isolation that it brings from a work perspective. For example, at the end of a Zoom meeting that might not have gone so well, the screen goes blank suddenly, and it’s all over with you just sitting there on your own. In more normal times, when a meeting in the office ends, you might have walked away with other people, perhaps ask if someone wanted to go and get a coffee, and you’d have had a natural opportunity to debrief. That can be much more difficult in this environment and requires more of a conscious effort to ensure that debriefing can occur. One really important thing to do is to think about how that debriefing, or peer support, can still occur so you don’t just carry everything with you. Building this into your weekly plan is a great thing to do to look after yourself.
In Melbourne there hasn’t been a lot you can do during your annual leave due to lockdown, but we’ve still been encouraging people to take time off and just get away from their screen. I’ve had a few days off and it’s been amazing. Having a break to reduce the mental load is still really important – I encourage everyone to take a break.
What about people who have found themselves unemployed?
At Beyond Blue we’ve been thinking a lot about people who are out of work – many have found themselves in a position like that for the first time in their lives. There are strong links between mental health and financial health and that’s something that we are focusing on a lot at the moment. We have a new partnership with Financial Counselling Australia, and we’ve been building strong links between Beyond Blue’s support service and the National Debt Helpline. This is a free service available to anyone in Australia. When people’s mental health is intricately linked with their financial health, it’s important that they can seamlessly get support for both.
When things feel really out of control, it’s important to think about the things you can control. We all know that there’s a lot of stigma around poor mental health – interestingly, we are starting to consider the stigma about poor financial health. As a result of stigma related to both, people can be hesitant to access support. But the support is out there. At Beyond Blue, we encourage people to access support early – for your health and your finances – and get a plan in place for both. That will help with the things you can take control of.
What’s the best way to kickstart your day in a positive way?
There isn’t one hard and fast rule. For me it’s been getting up early and going for a walk every morning. I’ve managed to do it almost every day throughout the cold, dark Melbourne winter because it’s made such a difference to my mental health. That’s helped me to get exercise and some fresh air first thing, and to make sure I don’t roll out of bed and straight to my desk. But it depends on the individual, your unique circumstances and what works for you. Ideally, it’s about doing something that you enjoy and that helps you to face the work day ahead in a positive frame of mind.
What are some long-term strategies to deal with the ongoing uncertainty of this pandemic?
Looking after our mental health is more important than ever. We often have a plan around our physical health, for example we go to the gym to keep fit, have regular GP check ups—but we don’t have plans around our mental health. There are simple things we can all do though.
Think about the things that get you down or stress you out, and the things that can help you in those situations. If you’re still having trouble doing that and finding it all overwhelming, contact Beyond Blue or the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service, and they can help you come up with a plan of what’s best to do about your situation.
Any last thoughts on how we can best maintain our mental health whilst working from home?
We recently launched a beautiful partnership with Australia Post and it’s focused on the importance of connection. They launched a new stamp that has the tagline ‘When we connect, we feel better’. The idea is that you buy a pack of two. You use one stamp to send a letter to someone, and put the other one inside the envelope so they can send one back to you.
Through this pandemic, there’s been an increased focus on the need for human connection. As much as it’s been a really hard year, we’ve seen some incredible examples of people reaching out and helping and supporting others. I think there’s a lot of room for hope in that.
If we hold onto anything from this year, I hope it’s that we’re all a bit kinder, a bit gentler, we understand what others are going through, and we think of that first and foremost when we’re dealing with other people. If we all take that into 2021 we’ll be in good stead to have a much better year.