Getting through COVID-19 - tips from a key worker

Suba is a doctor, humanitarian and podcaster who has shared her five top tips for maintaining good mental health as a key worker during the pandemic.

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here.

Key workers have always been the backbone of our country, something which has been further highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. Social care workers, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, supermarket workers and bus drivers, to name a few, have all been under an unprecedented amount of pressure. With longer hours, more demand, and the requirement to work away from home, the demand on key workers has been challenging both mentally and physically.

Here are five top tips to help key workers manage their mental health during the pandemic.

1) Allow yourself the ability to rest

These are unprecedented times, so it's okay to allow yourself time to binge-watch Korean dramas, reality TV or documentaries. I would usually spend my day off blazing through a 20-point to-do list, however, I've noticed the difference in my mental and physical health if I give myself permission to rest.

Mindful rest is crucial and the ideas, realisations and decisions made during times of rest are what keep us going through our activities. Releasing myself from and relaxing my expectations around productivity and what I should be doing has been transformative.

Restful activities can include anything from having a long soak in the bath to reading the latest Nikesh Shukla book in bed.

2) Try to move your body throughout the day

If you're anything like me, exercise is the last thing you want to do after a physically and mentally exhausting day at work, when it's gloomy and miserable outside. In the first wave I was focused on completing home-workout challenges but a set of night shifts would come along and I would inevitably drop off.

So I've found ways to work movement into my day-to-day life and for me that's been walking and dancing. I'm lucky that I can walk to work and after a heavy shift it's a great way to clear my mind, gets me breathing and gives me time to think through things before I get home. If you're missing going out dancing with your pals as much as I am then join me in pretending you're in the opening montage of a 90s rom-com by putting on a face mask, blasting your favourite tunes and dancing around your house in your PJs. It's not a 10k run, it's not an intense HIIT workout, it's not strength training but I feel so much better for it, it's sustainable for me and that's what's important.

If you aren't doing something you enjoy, you won't stick to it. Allow your body time to move however it wants - whether you like lifting weights, or just walking outside in nature for thirty minutes a day,

3) Enjoy social time but create boundaries for yourself

We are social animals and isolation has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. I'm lucky that I physically go to work and get to work with and around people. Maintaining relationships can be difficult, but important during the pandemic.

However, not all key workers work with other people, or with people they get on well with. Some may live in households with others who they can talk to after a long day at work, and others may live alone. If this is the case, try to schedule in time to talk to friends or family on Facetime or Zoom.

I definitely end up feeling like a pressure cooker when it's been a while since I've had a laugh or vent with someone. However, constantly being available digitally can also feel overwhelming. If you need time to yourself, switch off your phone and let loved ones know you need some space to focus on yourself.

Social media is a great tool to feel connected with others, but finding a boundaried way of using it is key. If your feed is making you feel stressed or unhappy, then mute, unfollow or even delete apps if you need to - doing this has made my experience with social media so much better.

4) Try to keep up old hobbies or create new ones

In contrast to my opening statement about binge-watching TV, there comes a point where your brain can't process TV anymore and you need something to do to stay entertained. Taking up a hobby that you enjoy and find calming is an absolute lifeline. For me that's been singing. Whether it's belting showtunes with a karaoke from YouTube or singing through Taylor Swift albums with my guitar, it's a great stress-buster.

Hobbies can include baking, gardening, painting, DIY - anything that you find helps you mentally!

5) Acknowledge and accept the grief

We all have things to grieve - people, moments, dreams or opportunities. I have days where I feel angry and frustrated at how the pandemic has been managed, I feel worried and anxious about the wellbeing of my loved ones after spending hours caring for dying patients that feel so similar to them, I feel hopeless and gutted after losing treasured colleagues and I feel at a loss as time continues to pass but it feels like there's nothing good to show for it.

Sitting with those difficult feelings has helped me acknowledge them and then, in time, they pass. I've realised that a lot of us feel the same way and even though we're apart from each other, we are united in many ways. Talking honestly with loved ones about how we are and admitting when I'm feeling sad or frustrated has been freeing. If you feel like you don't have anyone around you who you can talk to about how you feel, then please reach out to a grief helpline for advice and support.

If you feel you need help, ask - don’t stay quiet and say nothing

If you want to develop a personalised plan for supporting your mental health you can visit the Every Mind Matters site, developed in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation.
In Scotland you can visit Clear your Head and in Wales you can visit Public Health Wales for more good ways to support your mental health.
If you need to talk to someone urgently and confidentially you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123 at any time.