As we head into Christmas amid growing uncertainty, mental health issues have never been more important at home and at work.
Mental health has been a big focus over the course of the pandemic and has been high on the agenda of many of the leading employers. Many have increased the support they have provided, in terms of check-ins and access to employee assistance programmes, mental health first aiders and signposting to other resources. There have been discussions about reducing screen time, extra days off, no meeting Fridays and the like as well as other initiatives on issues such as financial wellbeing which are closely linked to mental health generally.
The pandemic has been a rollercoaster and the recent news about Omicron has caused yet more uncertainty and disruption. That is bound to have an impact on mental health. It’s not just working from home, which may boost some people’s mental health. It’s the worry about where this will go, about older or vulnerable relatives’ safety, about young people’s mental health, about the impact on schools, about the increase in workload for some employers [particularly health-related professions], about uncertainty about jobs and businesses and so much more.
All the Christmas ads about getting together and nothing stopping us seem a bit dated already and just underline how impossible it is to plan at all. The kids are worried schools will be closed in January after they have only just got onto an even keel. There is a sense of horrible deja vu about all the emails I’m getting about guidance being unclear, worries about nursery staff’s safety, about pregnant women and so forth. The JCVI is finally prioritising pregnant women for vaccination amid research suggesting a 50% increase in maternal mortality compared with usual during the Delta wave and concerns about women queuing for hours for the booster. However, the guidance allows pregnant women and new mothers to be exempt until 16 weeks after their baby is born in recognition of vaccine hesitancy.
So how can we get through this? A webinar hosted by the Mental Health First Aid England which took place on 9th December just after the first announcement about Omicron restrictions – all the dates blur at this point – looked at different responses from different employers. Bola Ogundeji, Deputy Director of Workforce and OD at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, talked about managing trauma in the health service, about signposting to resources and looking at how to relieve workload pressure as much as possible; Bobbi Pickard, CEO of Trans in the City and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion manager at BP, spoke about how the pandemic had accentuated isolation and loneliness, about how an inclusive, empathetic approach is good for mental health generally and about her work on trans inclusion in particular; and Kevin Lyons, Senior HR manager at Pearson said remote working during the pandemic had brought profound changes to the way we work, which were positive for many people’s mental health, and about the role of mental health first aiders.
People on the webinar felt that their employers had mainly improved their support for mental wellbeing during the pandemic. There was a recognition of the need to consider people as individuals and facing a range of different challenges [what the MHFA, for instance, promotes the idea of a whole self MOT], to train managers in emotional intelligence and in avoiding a one size fits all approach, to encourage greater openness, to be more agile and to seek support and community.
These are important points in life generally. While it has undoubtedly increased inequality, the pandemic has also shown us the huge value of emotional intelligence, kindness, care and community. Looking after others is also a way of looking after ourselves.