Panic and the pandemic: Managing wellbeing in the lockdown
The social element of sustainability has been a focus for me over the last few years as we have got to grips with our "purpose", our role in the communities we serve and how that role includes looking after our employee's mental wellbeing.
I am passionate about all elements of sustainability; environmental - going back to my roots as an ecologist, financial as without getting that right we can't do anything else and social because whether we realise it or not our success is linked to how we interact with society.
This became particularly relevant to me just over a year ago when what I thought was a heart attack turned out to be a panic attack and undiagnosed anxiety and panic disorder. I do have a light-hearted account of this to read here.
In short, I had some long-standing issues with a few things, and these manifested themselves as panic associated with fears of my own mortality. So, you can imagine how someone with mortality issues leading to anxiety is enjoying the current global pandemic. At this point, of course, I want to give enormous thanks to the real frontline heroes out there, particularly in our NHS, who are out doing everything they can to keep us safe and healthy. But we shouldn’t underestimate how the self-isolating and social distancing can impact on our mental wellbeing, it's not something we are used to, it’s not something we can ignore and if we don’t plan and manage it then we may be storing up problems for the future. In fact, there is increasing concern about the mental health aftershock that we may be facing.
Now I am not a clinical expert, but I am someone who has been working on wellbeing in the workplace for a while, with lived experience and has been finding ways to manage my own mental health (there’s another blog on that). So, in these very strange times, I thought it was worth sharing what is working for me.
Structure and space
At Anglian Water, we made the decision to get as many people as we could working from home before the official lockdown (about 3000 out of 4500 employees). So, I have been in this routine now since the 17 March.
Working from home is not new to me but up to now, it’s been sporadic and certainly not the norm. Delineation of work and home life and maintaining some routine to your day is incredibly important in times as uncertain as these. To make things work for four of us working from home (my wife and two teenage kids) we needed to organise the space and find workspace for us all. We are very fortunate to have enough space and one of the benefits of working at home is that I can have my record player (a present from my kids last Christmas) on the desk and I can relive my youth playing 80s vinyl classics whilst I work. I find music a great stress reliever.
Anyway, dividing up space means that we can also make some delineation between work time and home life. Putting structure into your day is an important way of mirroring what we get in a normal working day. Sleep experts say that getting up at the same time every day is the best thing you can do to improve your sleep patterns. My working day starts at 8:30 with a conference call with Business in the Community, as I am helping them run their Business Response Network in the east of England. This is set up to match business support to charities and community groups in desperate need during the current crisis.
As for the rest of the day, it can be a collection of calls, video conferences, checking in with my team and then occasionally doing some of the work that I need to get done. I thought I might have more time during the lockdown to do some more strategic thinking but that certainly doesn't seem to be the case and I have now had to start blocking out time to have lunch with my family, otherwise, I can find myself going straight through without a break. As for the end of the working day, more on that in a moment, it tends to be more flexible, but you have to stop at some point and make that switch to home life.
I think it goes without saying that one of the things we in the sustainability field have failed to crack over the past 20 years has been changing the deep-set behaviour of needing to travel to meetings and see each other face to face. Where all our efforts have failed, this current crisis has delivered in the space of a month. I don’t know about you but I have had as many meetings, if not more, over the last few weeks all without leaving my front room. And it's fair to say I have been more productive too. I only hope that this part of the lockdown stays as the new normal and we all continue this positive contribution to reducing mileage and mitigating climate change.
As well as having my weekly team meeting via zoom, taking part in Management Board meetings and even Investor Board meetings, I have managed to stay connected with others too. Just as the lockdown was starting, I was announced as a Role Model on the InsideOut LeaderBoard; I am an advocate for managing good mental health in business, and I can recommend the Wednesday lunch session that Rob Stephenson, founder of InsideOut, runs through InsideOut X every week.
And to mark the end of the working week, on Friday night, I have an evening drink with old friends via zoom. In London, Windsor, Oxford and sometimes Sydney we have a beer, nibbles and a pub quiz. I see them more regularly now than I did before the lockdown and it’s a great way to say, right the weekend starts here.
Meditation & miles
Two absolute musts for my mental wellbeing routine are meditation and running. These are proving to be even more important in these strange times. I was a sceptic when I was first introduced to meditation and mindfulness.
As someone with health anxiety, particularly obsessing with my heart rate, trying meditation for the first time lead me to throw my phone across the room because, as I tried to relax and get into the zone, as I cut out other distractions, it just made my heartbeat sound even louder. But after having my turning point panic attack, I was persuaded to try again and stuck with it. I am now a total convert and have meditated every day since January 2019. I don’t have a set routine, depending on my mood and the day of the week, I might take 10mins out first thing in the morning, take a meditative walk at lunchtime, meditate in the bath or leave it until I am going to bed. But without a doubt, it is something I will continue to do every day, because it makes that much of a difference. I had a full health check last year and after one of the tests that check the rhythm of your heart the doctor asked me if I practised meditation, as the reading suggested that I did! So it must be working.
I have promoted this widely at work and Anglian Water has now provided Headspace for all of our employees, free of charge during the current situation. It’s part of the wider toolkit that is available to support all our mental health at work. Whether its Headspace or one of the other Apps out there have a look and give it a go, and not once, give it a week and you may be surprised the positive impact that it has. Most of them offer elements, free of charge, so try several until you find one you like. But if you suffer with poor sleep patterns I can recommend the sleep casts with ambient sounds or the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) ones really work for me.
Then, of course, there is the importance of regular exercise. I won’t win any races but running has become the other thing that I just can't do without. For body and mind, if I can’t run, I feel the impact almost immediately. So, being allowed out of lockdown once a day for exercise (at a suitable social distance) is a lifesaver. Running allows my mind to process all my thoughts from the day, allows me to listen to music or comedy, gives me alone time and of course helps to manage the chemical balance in the body and assist in better sleep. I usually run at the end of the working day as that separates work from home, or at the weekend I run first thing in the morning to set me up for the day.
Find joy in small things and stay positive
On days when I don’t run, then I take a walk. I am an ecologist at heart (and background) and so I take great joy in just being close to nature and have found that I both notice it and appreciate it more as a result of the lockdown. Wherever you live, urban or rural, start looking out for what’s around you and if you don’t know what you looking at, fix it in your mind, focus on the form, colour, situation and google it when you get back. Start a list of what’s around your home or local patch or try to sketch it. An old friend of mine has convinced me that anyone can draw and drawing nature can give you great mental wellbeing and reconnect you with the natural world.
But whether its nature, growing some veg on the windowsill, baking something tasty, dusting off your old record collection or downloading tracks that you used to listen to; find something every day that makes you smile. It was my son’s 15th Birthday a few days ago and so we dressed up in DJs and ballgowns, BBQ’d some homemade burgers and then danced to some of our favourite tunes with complete abandon in the front room with the curtains open, for all to see. Not something I would have predicted we would do 5 weeks ago – but a memory that I will treasure.
I hope that we can all find some positives out of this terrible event. For me, it will be the coming together of communities, the stepping up of business to provide support and demonstrate purpose, the effort to connect with people across the virtual landscape and the fact that perhaps we don’t need to race to meetings and travel to locations just to be seen. It is beholden on us to make sure that we take forward the positives to build a better future after this.
And if you are finding these uncertain times are making you feel more anxious than useful, perhaps you are feeling anxiety for the first time, you can do things to manage it. What I have learned is that its normal to feel anxiety, don’t try and hide from it and don’t try to fight it, just recognise it, note it and take some positive action to manage it.
So, stay well, stay connected, stay positive and try to find some joy in small things both in lockdown and when we are all set free again.