Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme is kindness. As such, BCS explores how we can all use digital technologies - and a little creativity - to stay healthy and happy during lockdown.

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought mental health and wellbeing into sharp focus. We now find ourselves isolated from friends and colleagues whilst juggling home schooling, worries about our physical health; all while possibly shouldering existing mental health conditions, too.

Add in commercial pressures fuelled by an impending economic recession, concerns about job security and it feels like Mental Health Awareness Week has arrived at just the right time.

This year’s theme is kindness.

The Mental Health Foundation, the charity behind the awareness week, explains why kindness matters: ‘…It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health.’ Helping others is beneficial for your own mental health and wellbeing: it can help reduce stress, improve your emotional wellbeing and even benefit your physical health.

One act of kindness can lead to many more. So, as you read on, we’ll look at ways in which we can all use digital technology to be kinder, foster compassion and hopefully create a prevailing tide of gentleness and forbearance.

BCS mental health research

The new BCS Mental Health in IT report (2019/2020) is based on figures published by the ONS and features an exploration of BCS members’ first-hand experiences.

The report was commissioned and compiled before the Coronavirus pandemic happened; however, its findings still provide useful indicators about mental health and wellbeing across our industry.

Key findings include:

  • The incidence of mental health issues amongst IT specialists has followed an upward trend over the past five years.
  • Mental health conditions are more common amongst IT contractors (the self-employed) than those working as employees and the difference is even greater between IT specialists in permanent as opposed to temporary work.
  • IT specialists with mental health issues are typically less happy and less satisfied with life, feel life is less worthwhile and are more anxious than those without such conditions.

Thankfully, there are many ways in which we can used kindness to support or friends and colleagues as they navigate the world depicted in our report - a world sharpened and darkened by Coronavirus.

1. Keep in touch with a virtual water-cooler

Humans are social animals and working in an office is a social experience. As such, long term homeworking - through necessity rather than choice - can place a burden on colleagues’ mental wellbeing.

Taking time at the beginning of Teams or Zoom meetings for a simple chat about life, the universe, or anything, can help salve loneliness. Make a ‘water-cooler chat’ part of your teams’ virtual meeting culture. Those moments of cohesion might be just the lift a colleague needs.

2. Try a virtual walking meeting

The links between fitness and wellbeing are well known. Experts believe exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Regular exercise can also enhance your self-esteem, boost concentration, improve sleep and lift general wellbeing.

Under lockdown and in isolation, these benefits are hard to achieve. Teams, WhatsApp and Zoom are eminently portable apps though. So, why not schedule virtual walking meetings where you can chat - security and privacy allowing - with colleagues? The benefits of walking meetings themselves are well known and include increases in creative thinking and engagement.

3. Blend lives, don’t strive for balance

We all have a physical persona and an online persona. As time goes on, these are starting to morph. During a recent BCS webinar – COVID-19: 12 ways to thrive with long-term homeworking - Rubi Kaur MBCS talked about a ‘work / life blend’. Blending online and offline work and life at a time like this is inevitable: pets, children and older parents will wander into shots. That should be encouraged and supported.

4. Go to the virtual pub or the coffee shop

Teams and Zoom aren’t just being used for work. Supportive groups of workers are using these technologies to carry on office traditions like a coffee and cake meetups and trips to the pub - albeit virtually. So, schedule a meeting where the main agenda items are tea (or beer) and not profit and loss.

5. Think, think and think again before you send

A poorly phrased email can have a real impact on a friend or colleague who isn’t feeling their best - especially now.

As such, read and re-read messages before sending them. Remember: a communication’s intention is always outlived and out measured by its impact. Better still, why not use Teams and speak directly to your colleagues. They might welcome a chat and your project might benefit from the communication.

6. Kindness starts communication: stop the silence

A positive corporate culture, even in the most mindful organisation, can be overtaken by the need to get things done.

If you do receive an email from a colleague, take time to reply. The person emailing you has invested time and effort into their message. Replying is kindly, shows you appreciate their input and investment. It also fosters communication, connection and lets your colleague know - even in the smallest sense - that they’re not alone.

So, slow down, show your colleagues you appreciate them and be kind: don’t ignore emails. The smallest reply might have the biggest benefit. There’s nothing worse than pouring your effort into a silent and unresponsive void.

7. Lend an ear

It’s a simple one: if you suspect a colleague is having a bad day, lend an ear. Often there’s no need to offer advice - just listen.

8. Simple acts

Helping others, evidence shows, has a positive benefit on our mental health. Mentoring and volunteering are grand ways of helping. But, there are smaller pieces of micro-digital kindness that you can engage in:

  • Give praise to somebody who did something particularly well. In Microsoft Teams, you can use the send acclaim features.
  • Remember to say thank you - by email, text or in a chat.
  • Say ‘hello’ and remember to ask colleagues how they’re doing. It’s not all about work.
  • Offer a virtual tea or coffee chat.

9. Sharing is caring

Just because you’re not in the office doesn’t mean you can’t share a funny news article or meme with that one colleague who would find it funny, too.

You could curate a YouTube or Spotify playlist to share with your team, to keep you going through a challenging piece of work, or for something new and interesting to discuss in your next virtual meeting. One good thing about working from home is the ability to have what you like on in the background!

10. The stress of virtual onboarding

Joining a new job or starting with a new company can be stressful enough in more normal times. Under lockdown and during these days of distance, beginning a new post can be doubly stressful. If somebody new joins your team, take the time to reach out and get to know them.