Looking after your mental health while working during coronavirus
Page last reviewed: 12 July 2021
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'.
Going back to the work environment
During the course of the last sixteen months, one of the areas of everyday life most affected by the pandemic has been our work. Before the pandemic we were already seeing the nature of work changing and the pandemic seems to have accelerated that change.
Whether we have been working from home, on furlough, or working throughout, the way we work has had to change. For some people, the pandemic has led to redundancy or a career change. Whatever our experience, there have been major changes to our work-life balance, the relationships with have at and with work, and our plans and aspirations going forward.
As lockdown eases, or comes to an end, our working lives are changing again.
There has been a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ – but we are quite a distance from knowing how things will settle down in terms of restrictions and adaptations in our lives and our work. It seems likely there will be some permanent changes in our working lives, but also that we may need to live with uncertainty for a while longer.
We must be alert to ‘Returnism’ – the impact that resuming after lockdown will pose to our mental health. We know there will be an effect, and that this will vary.
In this article we offer some tips for employers supporting staff back to work – and some tips for individuals about to make the jump back to a more familiar working life.
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.
Tips for home and remote working
IT and technology
Getting into a routine
Keep up the formal and social flow of work
Use the support that's available
Readjusting to the working environment
Know your own mind.
Try and work out how you are doing – what are you looking forward to about returning to business as usual? What seems difficult?
Recognise how your feelings and emotions are affected by circumstances and restrictions, and how you feel about restrictions lifting. Try and keep a note daily of things that have gone well, and things that have been hard. Talk things through with a partner, friend, or a colleague.
Make a plan.
It might help to plan for the first couple of weeks. Don’t try and do too much and build in a lot of rewards and time to do things you know boost your mental health.
You might want to build in strategies to push through tricky bits – like the commute, public interaction, or busy places. Headphones for the commute with a favourite podcast or playlist, meeting up with a colleague to walk in the door, or a coffee/lunch buddy are all ideas. You may want to discuss flexible working, or adjustments to your work too – like travelling off peak to avoid crowds
Follow advice on masks, distancing, and testing
Most legal restrictions are due to end in England in the coming weeks, with the rest of the UK following later in the summer. Even so, people will still be encouraged to test themselves regularly and there may be times when masks or social distancing are still required.
Hygiene measures like hand washing make good sense for avoiding tummy bugs and flu anyway – but you may also have restrictions on contact and distancing in your workplace.
Do your best to consider others.
Many of us haven’t been around colleagues and a workplace for a while. It might take a bit of time to adjust – many organisations will be developing completely new cultures and when we are all nervous or anxious, tempers can be short and judgement fast.
Some colleagues may be very nervous about restrictions ending – and in some cases that may be because of personal experience, or because vaccination isn’t an option for them or someone close to them. Respect the boundaries people set around things like handshaking, keeping a distance, or not coming along to social events or in person meetings. Set your own boundaries too but remember to test your limits too.
Try not to judge other people’s behaviours too harshly – whether that is people’s choices around mask wearing on public transport or the noise your colleague makes eating soup at their desk.
Lift up your colleagues whenever you can. Listen. Be an ally.
Enjoy the company of colleagues – but don’t forget people that are still working at home.
For many people, getting back to a dedicated workplace is going to be exciting and rewarding. For some people though, it will be difficult, or something to be endured. For many office workers, some kind of hybrid is going to be the norm.
Do what you can to plan your diary to make the mot of quiet time at home, and active time in the office – but also bear in mind that some people can’t come into the office or don’t want to. Try not to exclude people who aren’t in the office – or make assumptions about people’s home working situations.
Be aware of how much going back takes out of you – make sure you rest.
Any change is exhausting in the short term. If you are going back to commuting, or being around people for much of the day, there’s going to be a lot of adjustment. You’ll be tired. You’ll need your weekends and your evenings – and you’ll need your friends and the other things that keep you going. Sleep is very important for our mental health but so is rest time. Book in some leave before Christmas, make sure you turn off after hours, and don’t try and be a superhero and brush off minor illnesses or tiredness.
Find your new balance.
Lockdown, furlough and home working changed so many lives. You may have found a new career or job and be meeting colleagues for the first time in person. You might have stopped travelling around the world and reconnected with your kids and partner – or you may have lost touch with the people you second time with in a sports team, club or community group you’ve not been able to do.
Try keep up the good habits you had in lockdown, and the awareness of your community and neighbourhood. Keep asking what you want from life and from your career and set some goals if that feels right. Most of all be gentle and kind to yourself- find a way to get what you need for your mental health.
You’re probably going to want to talk about how it’s going – try and let off steam with your friends, family and colleagues. Lean on this network of support and be there for them too. Many people are facing hr same issues. Try to speak to your boss if there are concerns – as problems are usually easier to fix early. If your workplace offers support, like an employee assistance programme, or benefits like gym membership or childcare support use it if it might help.
Supporting staff to return to work
All employers have a duty of care to recognise and manage psychological hazards and to address stress at work – we all know about trip hazards and protective equipment at work – but far less is known about ways to protect our mental health from hazards like over work or bullying.
Whether your people are returning to work from furlough, returning to an uncertain future, returning to the workplace from home working, or returning after facing the direct consequences of the pandemic – there is a need to anticipate and prevent distress, and huge opportunity to stride forward in the way we address mental health in our workplaces.
Involve staff in planning for return to work.
Open, authentic communication is key during any period of change or uncertainty and is even more important at the moment where people may not have had their usual support structures.
If possible, involve staff in planning for return – perhaps by encouraging managers to discuss hopes/fears/wishes with direct reports, or by using established consultation processes.
Ask for ideas, test them, and adopt the best ones.
Be mindful of, and compassionate around individual circumstances.
Across the UK, millions of people have been directly affected by the pandemic – you may have lost staff members to COVID-19, staff may have been bereaved, had COVID- 19 and recovered or been affected by long COVID, or been affected in many other ways. It’s very important that you are able to support those people and their colleagues.
There is likely to be a period of catching-up and realisation of how challenging this has been. It may be a real opportunity to grow together as a team, but you may need to factor in a drop in performance as this period is managed. Rebuilding social connections is going to be very important especially if you have welcomed new team members, or reorganised teams during the pandemic.
Look at the support you provide your people and promote them again – employee assistance programmes, benefits, mental health allies, and self-care opportunities can all be offered and sharing stories – especially by senior staff can be useful.
Make sure people are taking annual leave and recovery time.
It’s important that you promote annual leave to recharge even if the instinct is not to - especially if the business faces uncertain times and people feel the need to get back to it – or if your people have worked right through offering key services to the public.
As with any period of intense and unrelieved stress, when the stress is lifted, there is sometimes an impact on physical or mental health.
You may see an increase in absence, signs of burnout amongst staff. Be prepared to support people through sick leave and rehabilitation including for long COVID and for stress or mental health related absence – both through absence management but also through coaching and personal development.
If people have children, taking time off in the summer holidays can be very for many, mixing work and childcare has been stressful. Even staying at home, without an obligation to be ‘switched on’ people may find that they can relax and recover even if they are tired of spending time at home with their families in some cases. Equally, making people return to the office during the summer where childcare can be an issue may be hard for staff and a phased return could benefit them and their children.
Place diversity and inclusion front and centre
Meaningful action on diversity and inclusion should be at the centre of plans for recovery. You may see an increase in staff disclosing protected characteristics – including mental health related disability as they realise the impact of unintended adjustments or find a workplace where more people have been open about feelings during lockdown.
The death of George Floyd and the global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has also brought racism and its impact on mental health into sharp focus. Combined with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people from BAME communities it is likely that BAME staff will (rightly) expect employers to address these concerns going forward.
Consider whether people need to be in the office – or whether they could be if they want to
For many, working at home has been a revelation, with opportunities to work around other interests and commitments and to focus in different ways. Some have reported a decrease in anxiety and better finances without a commute. Equally, other people report that they miss the opportunity to put on their work identity, get out of the home and into the office, and crave coming back. And some of course have lost their jobs and are desperate to get back to an office or workplace environment.
As we make decision about flexibility and future needs, it can be tempting to assume that everyone can work from home or wants to.
Home working has for many been something to endure – especially where housing may not be safe or spacious enough to work effectively, or where social connections at work are important at keeping loneliness at bay. This is an important consideration when property is a major expense for businesses facing challenging economic times, where reducing overheads and pushing to remote working is a tempting proposition.
For many, flexibility will be important in the short and longer term – enabling this wherever possible will protect and improve mental health.
Consider how hybrid working will change your workplace culture.
Now is the time to consider how the built environment and your culture working could better promote wellbeing – especially if being in the office is less frequent, and higher value for both business and employee.
With many employers looking at a hybrid model of part office/part home consider how this dynamic will affect culture, and productivity.
It is tempting to ask everyone to be present for team meetings so that all are ‘in the room’ – at the same time that might create barriers for people who are anxious about travel or have other access needs.
You could also consider asking all staff who are in a meeting to be on phones or video if some participants are at home – especially if your office lacks the technology and space to create inclusive hybrid meetings.
Plan for a gradual return to work for those who have been furloughed.
If your staff have been on furlough, think about their return to work in the same way you would a person returning from sick leave, a sabbatical or parental leave.
Advance notice, a return-to-work plan, or a phased return are all options. Remember that being on furlough may have been a challenge to mental health, and that people’s priorities might have shifted during this time. Building in time for career conversations and wellbeing check-ins can be useful.
Equip line managers with the skills to have conversations about mental health.
For any business, the relationship between manager and employee is key to success. Ove the last decade we have seen a huge increase in manager training on mental health, and better still holistic mental health programmes that include training.
If you have trained managers, it is a good time to refresh their skills, and especially emphasise the value of listening and questioning skills, and the confidence to ask, and offer appropriate signposting.
Our Coronavirus Mental Health Hub has a range of articles with tips and advice on different aspects of mental health, including on coming out of lockdown.
If you don’t have a mental health programme it is a good time to develop one.
Our close colleagues at Mental Health at Work have adapted their business focused training and organisational development programmes for online delivery, as well as developing unique content to equip managers to adapt to the realities of remote leadership.