Tag Archives: mental health

Managing our mental health in an uncertain world: tips for employers and individuals in the return to the workplace

In recognition of World Mental Health Day 2021, we asked academics from our Department of Organizational Psychology to share practical advice for mental wellbeing as people make the transition back to the workplace.

If there is one thing that is certain well into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that certainty is no more.

Looking back to Spring 2020, when the UK imposed its first lockdown, there was a clear message for workers: work from home if you can, otherwise continue to go to work.

Now, the situation is rather less clear-cut, and the uncertainty surrounding how organisations and individuals will return (or not) to former ways of working can be a source of considerable anxiety and stress.

As World Mental Health Day 2021 approaches on Sunday 10 October, we spoke to Dr Kevin Teoh and Dr Jo Yarker from our Department of Organizational Psychology to learn more about how we can look after our mental health as we navigate this period of transition.

Why is this a particularly difficult time for people’s mental health?

“What the research has shown is that people are really depleted,” explains Dr Jo Yarker, Reader in Occupational Psychology. “All of these extra demands have been on us in terms of home demands, working in different ways and having to think about the way we do things that we used to take for granted. This has taken up a lot of energy, so many people are going back into this transition from a depleted state. We also haven’t had holidays and the opportunity to restore in the same way.”

For Dr Kevin Teoh, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, it is difficult for individuals to take care of the ‘ABC’s of mental wellbeing in the current climate: “As individuals, we need autonomy, belonging and competence to support out mental wellbeing,” he explains. “In other words, we need freedom and control over how we do things, the chance to connect with other people and to feel like we can get things done. Everything that’s going on in the world right now is hitting these areas; we’ve lost a lot of freedom, we aren’t connecting with each other physically and some people who have been made redundant or were on furlough may be asking if they can get through this. A lot of workers will be struggling to meet at least one or two of these needs right now.”

What can employers do to support positive mental health in the transition back to work?

For both Kevin and Jo, mental health at work is a collective responsibility. As Jo explains, “Often employers have been going through the same challenges as their workers, but they’ve had to put a brave face on it and pretend they know what to do. So that’s really hard.”

Jo recommends using an IGLOO model, where Individuals, the Group around them, Leaders, the Organisation and Our wider society take shared responsibility for mental health support. “It needs to be the whole system working and communicating together so there’s a shared understanding and shared expectation”, she explains.

Kevin encourages employers to think about how they can support individuals’ autonomy, belonging and competence: “Employers could facilitate a conversation to find out what their teams and individual employees want and involve them in the process. There also needs to be opportunities for employees to connect, be that formally via a mentoring process or more informally. As for competence, what resources and training do employees need to work remotely or return to the office, and how can they be supported to continue to develop?”

What can individuals do to take care of their mental health?

Individuals alone might not be able to shift company policy, but Jo and Kevin are keen to point out that, regardless of your work environment, there are things we can do to take care of ourselves.

“Ask yourself whether you are looking after yourself – are you putting boundaries in place? Are you investing time in your social networks? Are you receiving feedback from somebody at work?” says Jo. “Identify the gaps in your armoury of support and take steps to build them or find out how you could get support from work to build them.”

In addition, supporting mental health at work does not need to begin and end at work, as Kevin explains: “We can be purposeful in how we manage our mental health, so I might gain control over how much I exercise or how much news I consume. I could call a friend to feel a sense of belonging and take up a new skill like learning a language or musical instrument to feel more competent.

“We have to recognise that there are lots of things that we cannot control, but rather than be swept away with that, what’s one thing that I could do today, or this week, that would be a step towards more positive mental health?”

The Department of Organizational Psychology has published more detailed guidance on managing our wellbeing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the guide online.

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Supporting parents, carers and educators during the pandemic

Over the past year, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department has teamed up with the Psychology for Education BA: reaching out to parents, carers, and educators in the pandemic. In this blog they outline how they are supporting those who face barriers entering higher education in a virtual world. People in a classroom with a person speaking Social interaction and peer support are invaluable to all of us, and for children and young people isolated from their friends and usual routines, it has been an especially tough year. Parents, carers and educators have also been hit hard, having to adjust to online learning and struggling to find time for their own needs while juggling online learning, work and caring responsibilities.

Recognising these increasing pressures and following the launch of Birkbeck Inspires last year, Ana Da Cunha Lewin, Senior Lecturer and Course Director for the Psychology for Education BA contributed a series of online lectures for parents and carers. These covered coping with anxiety during lockdown, exercise for wellbeing, and nurturing resilience. At Access and Engagement, we were delighted when Ana agreed to work with us to deliver a five-week taster programme on the subject of Psychology for Education with a focus on children’s learning, wellbeing and resilience.

The Access and Engagement Department aims to support those who face barriers to Higher Education to take a step into formal education. This taster programme provided a space where people could come and learn more about the subject and apply it to their life as parents, carers or at work. It also gave participants a chance to explore what university learning is like using Moodle, seminars on MS Teams and pre-recorded video content.

We had 30 people without a first degree join us, with ages ranging from 20 to into the 60s, and an array of different life experiences. Working with our Trade Union partners, a third of our attendees heard about the course via Unison or the Public and Commercial Services Union. Participants shared their experiences of their own schooling and parenting, or their work in schools or youth work.

Ana da Cunha Lewin said: “It’s been a pleasure to work on the Psychology for Education Taster Course with the Access and Engagement team; planning was really well-supported and the team made the preparation very straightforward. It was also an absolute pleasure to teach a really interested, engaged and enthusiastic group who made the sessions lively with many interesting discussions. A really positive experience and I would be very happy to take part in the programme again.”

Feedback from participants was positive with one person commenting: “Ana and Vanna were magnificent educators and their passion and enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious!”

We’re looking forward to running a similar programme with Mike Berlin and Tim Reynolds from the History and Archaeology Certificate of Higher Education later this year. For more information about our Taster Programmes and Access and Engagement’s other work take a look at our newly revamped web page.

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Making Working from Home Work for You

The first Birkbeck Astrea event of 2020-21 explored how small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing, productivity and work-life balance while working from home.

Picture of a laptop with coffee and a children's toy.

If you, like much of the UK population, are continuing to work from home in the New Year, how did you feel returning to your desk (/dining room table/kitchen worktop) after the Christmas break? Were you relieved to give a freezing January commute a miss, or disappointed to miss out on catching up with colleagues? Are you returning to your laptop refreshed, or is it already feeling like Groundhog Day? 

If you’ve found the prolonged absence from the office a difficult adjustment in any way, be it the technology, loneliness or struggling to switch off at the end of the day, you’re not alone, as Birkbeck Astrea members discovered in their first formal event of the 2020-21 academic year, Making Working from Home Work for You. 

Working from Home: Love it or Hate it? 

This virtual event began with an opportunity to share the highs and lows of working from homeAmong the bugbears that we’d rather not carry into 2021 were an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; technological issues ranging from Wi-Fi crises to video call etiquette; as well as habits that we just can’t seem to save ourselves from, such as the obsessive reading of bad news on social media known as ‘doomscrolling’. 

It wasn’t all bad though, as colleagues also shared some of the highs from lockdown life, such as getting to know co-workers on a more personal level by being introduced to pets and other elements of home life; having an opportunity to get chores done in the week, leaving the weekend free to relax; and enjoying more comfortable attire, as one member commented: ‘Spending my working day in outside shoes seems ludicrous and I don’t know how I ever did it.’ 

Change One Thing 

While this end of term gathering was a great opportunity to get together and let off steam about working from home, there’s a serious side to this too. The blurred boundaries created by working from home mean that many of us are working longer hours and finding it harder to switch off at the end of the day. Mental health can suffer too, both for those juggling caring responsibilities with work and for those living alone who may feel isolated. So what can we do to make an improvement in 2021? 

Thinking about how we could improve our work/life balance, productivity and foster a healthy mind in the New Year, we asked members for suggestions of one small thing we could do in 2021 to make a difference. Here’s what they said: 

One change to improve work/life balance: 

  • Turn off all notifications: social media, email – they are designed to serve someone else’s priorities. 
  • Ditch the guilt: give yourself permission to take breaks and don’t feel bad for sticking to your agreed working hours. 
  • Make plans to call a loved one on your lunch break or straight after work. 

One change for a healthy mind: 

  • Be kind to yourself: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish everything on your to do list. 
  • Use your commute time to walk or read a book – whatever helps you switch off from the day. 
  • Go outside: use your lunch break to get some daylight and fresh air. 

One change for increased productivity: 

  • Take breaks away from your desk – in the physical office we were much less attached to our desks than we are now! 
  • Focus on one thing at a time – multitasking is distracting. 
  • If you’re in a meeting, switch off your emails. Don’t try to spread yourself too thinly. 

Got a great tip for working from home? Add it to our list. 

What small change can you make this year to get 2021 off to a great start? Let us know what you’ll do differently in the comments below. 

Birkbeck Astrea is a grassroots networking group for women and non-binary people working in professional services roles at Birkbeck, University of London. Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

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Managing staff who are working from home: business as usual?

Professor Gail Kinman, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology share tips on how to manage staff who are working from home.

Empty office

Steps to manage the Covid-19 virus mean that working from home is now mandatory for many people. This will help contain the virus, but such a major shift in working practices will not be easy. Some employees will be working from home for the first time and may struggle to accommodate to their new environment. It may also pose challenges for managers who are required to ensure ‘business as usual’ but have little experience of managing people who work remotely.

The skills required to manage staff during these challenging times are quite different than those needed face to face. Below, we provide some guidance on how to manage remote workers effectively.

Set expectations from the outset signalling support and understanding

The move to remote working will make communication more challenging and you will have less insight into what staff are doing each day. The first step for any organisation is to communicate with all workers affected, setting out clearly the support you are offering, how you will communicate with them and the expectations you have for their performance.

In the current special circumstances, this may mean waving goodbye to previous management practices such as mandatory core hours and operating a flexible “work when you can, as much as you can” policy. Some workers will have challenging circumstances and may have little time or energy for uninterrupted home working. It is important to acknowledge these challenges from the outset and keeping conversation streams open will help you become aware of any changes in people’s circumstances. Also provide clear information on who staff can turn to for advice and support and issue regular updates.

A settling in period is crucial

Staff will need some time to process the change, access the necessary equipment and systems, establish channels of communication and negotiate and adjust work tasks. Do not make assumptions that people who work at home will be more productive as they have more flexibility and their commuting time is eliminated. People will typically take a lot longer to do things and be unable to work to full capacity, especially during the early days of home working. Keep reassuring your staff that you do not expect them to be as productive as usual – maybe the best that you can do in the short term is to identify priorities and work out how best to meet them. Ensure that you have a mechanism for staff to feed back on how things are working out for them. Double check also that appropriate hardware and software is in place. For instance, there are reports already that some organisations are running out of virtual protected network (VPN) licenses.

Be sensitive to role stress

People experience role overload when they are expected to fulfil multiple roles simultaneously without the resources to do so. Resources can be time, energy or attention. Role conflict occurs where fulfilling the demands of one role (e.g. work) is incompatible with meeting those of another (e.g. caring for children). Understandably, both role overload and conflict can be distracting and impair wellbeing and productivity.

Staff will have to dedicate considerable time and energy to craft a balance between their work demands and domestic responsibilities. They are also likely to be anxious about obtaining household provisions and need to monitor the health of themselves and their family members.

Build trust and avoid micromanaging

Building trust between you and your team is crucial. Jointly negotiated goals will help your staff feel engaged, productive and motivated. Deadlines can be set but, as discussed above, flexibility will be required as personal circumstances are likely to be subject to change. Bear in mind that the communication process should be two-way. It is important for managers to check in with staff to monitor their progress and their mental health, but your direct reports also have a responsibility to provide you with updates. Managers are unlikely to have the time to set up cumbersome and intrusive reporting processes, but avoid bombarding people with unnecessary requests, forms, procedures and guidelines.

Use meetings sparingly

Tools such as Skype and Zoom make organising meetings for remote workers straightforward but be aware that online meetings can be time-consuming. Ensuring that all staff members have an input is also challenging. Try not to organise meetings over lunchtime to ensure that staff have a break and are able to prepare meals for children. Send out clear meeting etiquette guidelines. Ensure that meetings are never booked backtoback, as they can become very draining. A shared diary will help mitigate this.

Be aware of the risks of being ‘always on’

Discourage staff from working long hours even if they are willing to do so, as they will be less effective and more vulnerable to health problems. Encourage people to have regular breaks away from their workstation throughout the day. As well as stopping work physically, staff should switch off psychologically to replenish their energies and to enable them to meet their domestic responsibilities. Role model the behaviour you expect from them, such as making it clear that there are times that you are not available, are resting or are meeting your other responsibilities.

Be aware of people’s personal circumstances and conscious of the challenges they are facing

What caring responsibilities do your direct reports have? Are they home-schooling? Do they have the necessary equipment and a quiet working environment? Some people may have access to a dedicated office, while others have to work on a kitchen table, a bedroom or the sofa. Encourage people to take steps to create boundaries (both physical and psychological) and avoid distractions wherever possible but accept that this will sometimes be inevitable. Children will interrupt meetings, dogs will bark and internet connections will inevitably fail.

Treat your staff as individuals

Your staff will experience the change to remote working in different ways. Some may feel anxious, while others will relish the challenge and break from routine. You will find that some people will need more support than others, so you could offer them short goal-setting meetings at the start of each day and a catch up at the end. Others, however, might find this intrusive and prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Be aware that some people will be prone to over-working and may need encouragement to switch off. Asking staff to share with you any difficulties they may be experiencing will help you gain insight into their individual circumstances, needs and preferences.

Encourage socialising and bonding

Working at home can be isolating; this will be a particular problem where staff are largely confined to their homes. Loneliness can reduce motivation and productivity and increase the risk of stress, anxiety and depression. It is important therefore for people to maintain social bonds and feel part of the team. Take some time before a meeting for people to share something personal. Encourage other social bonding opportunities such as ‘virtual coffee time’, a video chat over lunch, or a joint exercise session. Continue to celebrate people’s birthdays or other special occasions. Be creative – one manager we recently spoke to distributed a mini ‘pub quiz’ to help relieve the pressure and encourage team bonding.

Be kind, compassionate and respectful

Show genuine concern for people’s wellbeing and understanding of their personal circumstances. Provide praise and positive feedback so that people know their efforts are recognised and provide affirmation of confidence in your team. You can encourage staff to be open about any difficulties they are experiencing by disclosing that you too are struggling at times. People’s home environments are now their workspaces, but they should not feel that the organisation has moved in with them. It is important, therefore, that communication is measured and considerate.

What about your own wellbeing?

It is equally important that you show the same kindness and compassion to yourself. Expectations of managers are high, and many are now responsible for keeping the business afloat while endeavouring to support their staff through a major transition. Recognise that these are unusual times and it will be a learning experience for everyone.

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How to set up your home working space to support mental and physical health

Dr Rachel Lewis, Registered Occupational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology shares her tips for creating a safe and productive work or study environment at home.

Home office

Image credit: Desky

The coronavirus pandemic and ongoing lockdown have meant dramatic shifts in the way we work, much of which is beyond our control. Many of us are now working from home, sharing study space with housemates or family members and juggling childcare and other responsibilities into the mix. 

One thing we can take control of, however, is how we set up our workspace to support mental and physical health during this challenging time. The tips in this blog will help you to create an effective workspace, plan manageable routines and mitigate some of the stress that comes with adapting to a new way of work. 

Step 1: Choose your workspace 

As we continue to work remotely, it may be tempting to gravitate to your duvet or sofa and work in comfort, but doing so makes it difficult to manage the boundary between work and other areas of your life. 

Ideally, your workspace should be a separate area of your home that you can go to and leave as if you were going to work, whether that’s an office, desk or seat at your dining room table. This prevents disruption to the rest of your home and helps you psychologically to feel ready for work in that space. 

Step 2: Give your environment some love 

It’s amazing the difference that a few small touches can make to your work environment. Do you have access to natural light? Do you have a plant that could provide you with a more natural environment? While we’re in a state of uncertainty about how long lockdown could last, it’s important to create a space where you feel comfortable working. 

Think also about how to set up your desk to support your posture – could you put a few books under your laptop, or place a cushion behind your back, to help sit in a way that won’t lead to back or neck pain? Physical and mental health are closely linked, so by taking care to avoid aches and pains, you’ll be helping your mind too. 

Finally, scan the area to make sure it’s safe – are there any stray laptop wires that could be trip hazards to you or a family member, for example? 

Step 3: Define your working hours 

Without the physical boundaries that come from commuting to work, it’s tempting to just work around the clock. To ensure you take time to rest and recuperate, set (and stick to) a time to finish work each day. This time may have changed from your usual hours to accommodate other commitments – you could specify your new working hours in your email signature, so people know when you will be available. 

If possible, try to use separate devices for work and leisure – if you have been provided with a laptop or phone line for work, turn these off at the end of your working day to avoid the temptation to keep connected. 

Step 4: Be kind to yourself 

The situation we’re living through represents a significant period of readjustment, so don’t be too hard on yourself if working from home still feels alien. Set yourself goals, but be prepared for those to flex sometimes. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and let’s help each other through until we meet in person again. 

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Reaching out to teens with a helping hand(book)

Birkbeck PhD student and relationship writer Suzi Godson co-founded the mental health-support app MeeTwo. Now she is busy raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign to create a MeeTwo magazine – containing stories, art, photography, poetry and more – for distribution to schools to provide further help to teenagers in need. Here she explains more about the project.

Research shows that half of all adult mental health issues manifest by the age of 14 and the average age for the onset of clinical anxiety is just eight years old. One in five young people will experience a mental health issue in any given year and suicide is now the leading cause of death in young people. These figures are rolled out time and again to emphasise the dire state of teenage mental health in the UK, but the voice of teenagers themselves is rarely heard.

Two years ago, I represented Birkbeck in the Santander Universities Entrepreneur Awards with my idea for an app that would make it easier for teenagers to talk about difficult things. In September I launched the MeeTwo app and it is now a thriving community of 2,500 teenagers who have lots to say on the subject of mental health. I decided it was time to give them that voice so I am using Kickstarter to crowdfund the printing and distribution of The MeeTwo Mental Help Handbook For Teenagers.

It’s essentially a collection of very moving first person accounts from young people who are coping with a range of issues including more serious mental health issues. The clever thing about the handbook is that it also contains a turbo-charged directory that goes way beyond the usual list of helplines. As well as listing support groups and helplines, the Mental Help directory details the best apps, the best TedX talks, books, self-help, activities and products to enable young people to help themselves. It’s much needed because 61% of GP referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are rejected because the criteria for acceptance are so high.

That’s a scandal in itself so the handbook also provides a unique opportunity to ask experts why teenage mental health is such a big problem. We’ve pulled in some big names to help us answer this question. Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, Regius Professor Of Psychiatry at King’s College, London and all-round boffin has given us a dynamite interview. And we will be announcing more big name contributors soon.

The MeeTwo Mental Help Handbook is going to be a fantastic resource for schools, for young people and, indeed, for anyone studying psychology, social care, or education. However, we have to reach our Kickstarter target of £10k in order to be able to print and distribute it. We are half way there but Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding platform, so please buy a copy (£10) of the handbook here and tell everyone you know to do the same. Help us to make it happen.

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