Coronavirus lockdown gave me a new perspective on the importance of mental health

Efforts to support employees in a time of crisis reveals how little we do in times of normality

I am ashamed, but readily willing, to admit that it took a coronavirus lockdown for me to truly appreciate the importance of mental health, and the effects of its deterioration.

As I’m sure many of our readers will appreciate, it’s easy to make assumptions about the wellbeing of colleagues and those we encounter on a daily basis. As a society, we encourage normality – we’re uncomfortable with difference, sudden change, and ill-health. We also assume that ‘normality’ in others is how we ourselves judge it – the effective handling of experiences each day, with ‘bad’ days being the outliers. This is a framework that I’ve applied to the understanding of others for the majority of my life, and I’ve only recently realised how flawed it really is.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the majority of us into uncomfortable living and working situations. Our daily routine has been upended, our options for interacting with our teammates stifled, and many of us are unable to perform our job roles to the best of our abilities. Couple this with the disruption in our personal lives, where issues like isolation from friends and family can be just as upsetting for some as not being able to move into different rooms of a shared house for others. Not everyone has handled lockdown in the same way, and not everyone has thrived.

I’m also sure many of you will have been forced to rely on video conferencing and collaboration software like Slack or Microsoft Teams far more than you would have typically. Ostensibly we’re all tech enthusiasts, but I hope I’m not alone when I say that I never quite realised how mentally draining dialling into video calls can be. Conversations feel stilted, even with those you would normally sit next to, and you rarely get the opportunity to decompress between meetings – it’s the equivalent of sitting in an office at work and having a line of people outside your door waiting to speak to you. The constant instant-message style chats we have over Slack can be just as frustrating, a place where how your message is interpreted at a glance is often as important as its contents.

As a manager and colleague, I have often worried about how those I work with across my company are handling the lockdown, and the new restrictions that have been placed on communication. Where a day may have once been full of in-person meetings, I now question the necessity of every video call. Where KPIs and output once ruled, I now find myself adjusting the workdays of others to help avoid burnout. Where once 5pm on a Friday meant switching off and leaving the office behind, we now have afterwork virtual drinks and quizzes to help try and maintain team cohesion and morale.

These are small decisions to help alleviate the headache of permanent remote work, but they’ve also made me question why we don’t collectively make the same effort in a ‘normal’ working day. This increased awareness of the mental health of others is, in itself, an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge. We often consider the mental health of others during a time of crisis, but rarely during a time of normality. If the lockdown has provided us with anything, it’s the opportunity to talk more openly about work-life balance.

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I predict that robust support cultures at companies will soon become one of the biggest drivers of recruitment. This is going to be especially true for any organisation considering switching over to partial or full remote work.

Zoom might be the poster child of the lockdown, but the placement of employee wellbeing above all else is likely to be its legacy

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