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Attending to our mental health and wellbeing in these changing times

This blog contains the main points and references in a session I delivered at the ICAEW Financial Controller's conference on 18 May 2021.

Remember those days which seem like a long time ago, when we could get on a plane? The safety announcement would play and we would be informed that oxygen masks would drop in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. We would then be reminded that we should fit our own mask before helping another. As we consider this image there are some parallels with attending to our own mental health and well-being.

For many in leadership and/or in finance roles it has been a tough year – seeking to navigate businesses through choppy waters – whilst dealing with the personal impacts of lockdown. Psychologist Dr Kate Middleton, reminds us that whilst our bodies are wired to deal with short term pressure reasonably well (think of suppressing a beach-ball in the sea), but over a sustained period its trickier. Dr Middleton uses the analogy of a climbing wall, not only has the rockface changed but also the location of the handholds.[1] She goes on to identify 3 impacts these times will have had on us – we probably feel exhausted, our stress levels are raised and we need time to process. So, whilst we have cautious reasons to be optimistic with the easing back of restrictions, it is normal to feel slightly unsettled.

It’s good to take a moment and in a sense press the ‘reset button’ - thinking about what small things we want to build into our routines as the UK ‘unlocks.’ Imagine a trellis – supporting a plant and giving room to grow - what is your post-lockdown ‘trellis’ going to look like?

For all the benefits working from home may bring, there are some big disadvantages – not least the blurring of the boundary between home and office. ART Health Solutions present some fascinating insights in a webinar entitled ‘Covid as a Catalyst for Change.’[2] In their study of 12 organisations across 9 industries in Lockdown 1, in 87% of cases cognitive performance increased in Lockdown 1 – but an increase in sedentary time was as much as 1 week per month (the time that participants found themselves sitting was up to 1 week more than pre lockdown). The links between lack of movement and serious disease or mental health issues are well documented. Food for thought as we consider what the post Covid workplace looks like?

What has helped you survive during lockdown? According to social media – between March and June 2020, downloads of the Couch 2 5K app were 90% higher than the same period in 2019. We became a nation of gardeners – increases in seed purchases were fivefold. Flour manufacturers doubled their output for home baking and still didn’t meet demand …. and Zoom and Teams became our go to platforms for … most things.

We could put these down to some interesting feature from lockdown, but in many ways it’s no surprise that these are the kind of things that kept us going – but they bring to life the 5 Ways to Wellbeing [3], a piece of work undertaken by the New Economics Foundation, commissioned by the NHS is 2010.

I’ll explore these in more detail in subsequent blogs, but a quick whistle stop tour:

Connecting – whether extrovert or introvert, during this past year there will be times in the past 15 months where we have all craved connection. As we potentially move into more of a ‘hybrid’ way of working, how do we build connection into the day to day?

Giving – looking outwards and giving (time, expertise, potentially money) can be good for our wellbeing. During the long months of lockdown we have become more internally focused. As the world opens up, how can we start to look outwards again?

Take notice – during these past few months, I have noticed more than ever the signs of spring (impossible not to see on the never ending daily walks). Notice what makes you smile or brings you joy – it could be something very simple (sunrise or sunset, coffee in the garden, G&T on a summer evening), but important to prioritise.

Keep learning – there’s been no rule book for navigating the pandemic, but just look at what you have learnt about yourself, your organisations or your teams over this past year. As lockdown eases back, is there the opportunity to build in some learning which has no connection with work?

Be active – going to the gym isn’t everyone’s thing, but how can you build in more movement into your daily routines?

It would be easy to fall into the trap of seeing the 5 Ways to Wellbeing as a ‘to do list’ of things that must be done – in that way they are not helpful. Instead, its more about being intentional about self-care, especially as we are emerging from a period where new habits have been created – some of which won’t be positive. Think about one small thing which you could do in the week ahead to improve your wellbeing.

The pandemic has tested our resilience to its limits and beyond! Even before lockdown, we will recognise times in our lives where things have been going well, and then something happens which requires us to dig deep to survive. For more about resilience, Irrepressible by Cathy Madavan [4] is a great, engaging read.

Of course, the added dimension for many of us, has been supporting our teams and their wellbeing through the pandemic. Every organisation will be different in their response to this, and how they can practically respond – but as a leader it is important to be authentic in creating an environment where colleagues know that mental health and well-being in important, and it is a subject that is openly talked about. For more on leadership, the Brené Brown, Dare to Lead [5]podcast on Spotify is a great resource.

If you would like to discuss this topic further I would love to hear from you via twitter @sharonbellSFE or


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