Balancing wellbeing with research during lockdown

Managing research pressures can be difficult at the best of times. Rob Brooker reflects on his own struggles to get the balance right during the coronavirus lockdown.

workplace stress

Many drivers of mental health problems are also factors that arise in the research workplace: uncertainty, high workloads, and difficulties that are outside of our control and can engender, in some cases, a sense of isolation.

Two workshops that Andrea Baier, Senior Managing Editor at the British Ecological Society, and I ran during last December’s Annual Meeting in Belfast sought to provide some hints and tips for coping with these problems and their impact on mental health and wellbeing.

We wanted to highlight that many researchers, irrespective of their career stage, either face or have faced substantial challenges of this kind.

Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking again about these workshops. Many of the challenges and impacts we discussed then are now arising during the coronavirus lockdown, and are perhaps exacerbating problems that researchers struggle with anyway. For example, there is the struggle to keep workloads under control and find a reasonable point in the (probably impossible) task of developing a sensible work-life balance.

The upshot was that the lockdown was starting to get to me

From a personal perspective, week three of the lockdown seemed to be a crunch point. Weeks one and two were characterised by a manic drive, fuelled by collective action, coffee, and adrenaline, to get staff set up as best they could be at home. By week three we’d got many of the practicalities sorted and I was in theory on holiday, but I found it very hard to stop working and unwind.

The loss of a clear break from work and being unable to visit friends and family during the Easter break had bigger impacts than I expected. Mixed in with this was a bit of guilt about somehow not coping perfectly, despite my luck in having access to some beautiful countryside here in Aberdeenshire. The upshot was that the lockdown was starting to get to me.

However, the Easter week gave me a chance to think, something that can become a rarity during busy periods. I looked back to the Belfast workshops, and other discussions about mental health and wellbeing I’ve been involved in during the last couple of years, and tried to find some simple actions to address my Easter dip.

The following are things that I have implemented over the last week or two and seem to be working. It’s important to point out I’m not an expert on these issues. However, these actions are also being commonly raised elsewhere as helpful hints and tips on maintaining mental health and wellbeing during the lockdown period (see for example the websites listed at the foot of the page).

1. Stop looking at social media

A lot of it is speculative, there’s rarely any new information, and many of the stories are alarming. In addition, even if what’s being said about the consequences of Covid19 is accurate, there’s nothing we can do about it, so all it does is increase feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

2. More exercise; less chocolate, caffeine and alcohol

Easter’s a tricky time for reigning in the chocolate consumption, but I’ve tried hard since to at least strike a better balance between calories in and calories out. I’ve got off my bum and started running properly again, and also tried to cut the coffee and alcohol intake (despite the little voice in my head saying “Well, you’re not spending much on anything else…”).

3. Have a proper routine

I’ve found this helps to create a clearer space between work and home time. The routine doesn’t have to be a standard work day; sometimes I need space in it to sort out school work with the kids, but I have found it easier to switch off in the evenings.

4. Spend time doing nothing

Part of my challenge in terms of relaxing was to not simply swap a lot of work jobs for a lot of home jobs. So I’m forcing myself to do nothing – or at least nothing “useful” – for part of each day. A big help here has been a box set of the TV drama Broadchurch. We have now moved on to Killing Eve.

As I say, these are just a few things that are working for me. When trying to find practices that help with mental health it’s important to remember that everyone is different. If something doesn’t work, it’s not that you’re doing something wrong. A good tip is to look at the range of ideas and suggestions, try a few, and stick with the ones that work for you.

We need to build a new and healthier normal in the research environment

Finally, given the challenges for health and wellbeing that the Covid19 lockdown is bringing, is there anything positive that we can take away from it?

Something I find very encouraging is that it has never seemed more acceptable, and indeed important, to start a conversation or e-mail by checking – genuinely – how colleagues and friends are doing. Covid 19 is helping legitimise the need to look after one another, and it has provided me with a push to get in touch with some old friends I’ve been meaning to contact for a long time.

In addition, we’re learning that for a lot of the work we do many of us can operate just fine from home. This was in any case a general trend, but it has certainly been accelerated; the need to travel so much should now be easier to question, with benefits both for our home lives and the environment.

We have to remember these lessons. In the same way that governments are now discussing a green recovery, integrating environmental drivers and concerns into the financial packages aimed at rebuilding the economy, I’d like to think as we return to work we don’t go back to the old normal. We need to take the good bits with us, the bits that support health and wellbeing, to build a new and healthier normal in the research environment.

More information on coping with mental health issues during the Covid 19 lockdown can be found at the following websites:
MindScottish Association for Mental Health, and the NHS.