Mental health and coronavirus Q&A session

Written by Lois Munday
Jun 12, 2020

Lois is one of the leading trainers for Red Cross Training, delivering first aid and mental health and wellbeing training in the workplace.

During Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, The British Red Cross sat down with four of the UK's leading advocates for mental health at work to discuss the potential impact COVID-19 is having on our mental health.

We received so many questions during this enlightening webinar, that we asked two of the panellists - Debbie Bullock (UK wellbeing lead at Aviva), and Paul McGregor (Founder, author, and mental health campaigner at Everymind At Work) - to answer some more of your questions.


1. How effective do you consider e-learning mental health training courses to be when compared to face to face training?

Debbie: At Aviva they have a place, and (before COVID-19) we offered a mix of both. Done well virtual learning and e-learning can deliver, especially as it gives colleagues a reference point to look back on if they need a reminder/refresher on a particular point.

Paul: I think it’s vital, and a big part of what we aim to provide with Everymind at Work. E-learning is a way to provide mental health training at scale, and equally also helps attract more engagement as stigma can still affect face-to-face sessions.


2. How can we support those workers who are going to continue working from home, when other employees/colleagues will be returning to the office?

Debbie: At Aviva we are supporting our Leaders with managing a remote team (remote doesn’t have to mean working at home, but remote from each other).

We will have teams with people working solely from home, solely from the office, and a hybrid. As Leaders the key is about good conversations with those team members wherever they may be situated.

We talk about it being the same dance to a different beat. Using technology is still important as is making sure everyone’s voice is heard, regardless of where they are situated.

It is really important Leaders get to know each of their team well, as when working remotely from each other you have to look for less obvious clues about what support someone might need.

Paul: I think it’s really important to take an individual approach, as everyone will be dealing with the transition differently. For some working at home for a longer period of time will help them, but for others it can have a detriment on their mental health.

Communication is extremely important to achieve this, communication amongst teams and just reminding staff that you’re doing all you can to value their situation will have a big impact.


3. How can self-employed people get mental health support?

Debbie: If I remember correctly the Foundation for Small Business (including self employed) offers wellbeing support through their membership - which includes (under the CARE section) access to support for mental and physical wellbeing. Other organisations supporting small businesses may offer something similar.

Paul: As above, there’s a lot of amazing resources out there it’s just bringing awareness to them. I love, which is a directory of mental health services local to you. Equally, I’ll second the above. The FSB do some great work.


4. While there is a lot of "why are you anxious and depressed, you have such a good life" mentality, has there been a silver lining that people who have been struggling can now feel able to speak up under the "guise" of COVID-19 isolation?

Debbie: Whatever the reason people feel more able to speak up about their mental wellbeing, we should be grateful. Yes it would be better if it didn’t need a pandemic to encourage people to talk about it, but the fact that more employers are now considering employee wellbeing is a good thing (regardless of how it came about).

What we need to do is make sure that we keep the focus on supporting wellbeing in the future long after the pandemic is passed. We need to make it as normal as discussing the weather!

Paul: Mental illness has no face, mental illness does not discriminate. I personally had to deal with this harsh realisation, as my Dad (who I lost to suicide in 2009) had “on paper” no reason to be depressed. But I think the key to changing this outlook is education, and continued awareness around mental health. This pandemic has been hard, but as you’ve mentioned, equally I think it’s brought the importance of mental health to the forefront.


5. It was mentioned during the webinar about helping people to manage their fear when physically returning to the office - is there any high-level guidance you could give as to how to approach this?

Debbie: At Aviva we’re creating a pack to support any colleagues returning to the office. This includes a video of what the office will look like/feel like and the measures taken (specific to each of the offices we will open when the time is right).

We will include practical information about services/cleaning etc, but also wellbeing information about how it might make them feel (not the office it was before), and where to get emotional support (EAP, leader etc).

The content talks about the fact that it’s okay to have a range of emotions and not really understand the reason for them, and that all emotions are nearer the surface for many people right now.

Paul: 100% transparency and again communication during the transition will help staff deal with the uncertainty and fear. I love the idea of a video of how the office looks, I’d also encourage extending remote working for as long as you possibly can for some employees, but the most important thing is continued communication letting employees know that their wellbeing comes first during this time.


6. How can we make changes to accommodate staff with mental health issues when running a very small team and keep business running?

Debbie: Sometimes small adjustments can make a big difference, so having an open conversation is crucial. Being understanding, and listening is the first step, and working together on possible options. But being honest in those conversations as a small business of what is possible is equally as important.

Paul: Personally I learnt that when people need help with their mental health, compassion often outweighs solutions. It’s natural for us to want to solve their challenges, or take their pain away, but sometimes just letting them know you’re there and you support them as an organisation can be hugely valuable for someone struggling.


7. There were reports in the news over the weekend that we're facing a mental health 'tsunami' during and in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. As NHS mental health services are already so stretched - are there any practical tips for recognising when someone needs help and for supporting others?

Debbie: Look out for changes in typical behaviour – is an extrovert unusual quiet, or even louder than normal (over compensating), or vice versa. Has the individual's productivity changed (not always working less, sometimes anxiety may cause people to work more for fear of something happening). Often the biggest way to support someone is to listen, don’t judge, and then ask how you can help them.

Paul: Again, behaviour changes. For many it could be subtle, for others it could be drastic, but when you realise behaviour changes in those around you reach out. More importantly, don’t forget to ask twice.

Asking someone “how are you” is often greeted with “I’m fine”. But asking them again, reframing it, and then saying “It’s just that I’ve noticed you haven’t been sleeping as well as you’ve done in the past” shows compassion, it shows that you care and it shows that you’re willing to give them time to listen.


8. Where can mental wellbeing training be found? How regularly should staff have training to keep it relevant?

Debbie: There are lots of providers out there offering mental health first aider training (which then needs to be regularly re-certified), and I’m not sure if the delivery of that training is regulated.

There are lots of wellbeing providers offering general mental health awareness courses (including the Red Cross). The more general awareness training doesn’t need to be regular, but I would recommend a refresh every couple of years if colleagues find themselves not dealing with issues on a regular basis.

Paul: Maybe I’m too involved, but I think the options of training available are pretty extensive. Equally, I wouldn’t say there’s one option that will solve all of the challenges organisations face around mental health.

It’s really about embedding it into day-to day culture, trying different workshops, sessions, ways of learning, methods of engaging with staff and learning from those efforts.

Again with mental health being so individual, the more you offer and the more feedback you get, the easier it becomes to find out what will work best for your employees. If budget is an issue, getting staff and those passionate about mental health involved can help as well.


9. What top tips would you give for employees to help themselves, to find their tool kits?


1. Try a number of things out, when your mental fitness is in good shape (don’t wait for it to be in bad shape).

2. If your mental wellbeing isn’t great, make a note of things that work for you (journaling, CBT, counselling, etc).

3. Consider the impact things have on your mental fitness – e.g. what drains your mental reserves, and consider limiting these if you notice your mental wellbeing deteriorating (e.g. social media).

4. Consider what type of work empowers you or drains you (e.g. does presenting to large audiences make you feel good or wear you down), and alter the types of work you’re doing if you find a dip in your mental fitness, trying to do more of the things that empower you.

5. Similarly whether you are an extrovert or introvert, and does this impact your mental fitness.

These are all things that you can use in your toolkit.


1. Express how you feel in whatever way you feel comfortable (writing it down, speaking to a friend, family member, therapist, using online groups) – The longer you suppress it, the worse it becomes.

2. Try different things to find out what works for you. Your recovery is individual to you, so try different coping strategies and then implement the ones that help you the most on a daily/weekly basis.

3. Understand you’re not alone. Everyone has mental health, it’s one in one, and even though your mind might tell you otherwise, it’s important to remember you’re not alone.

4. Remember self care is a priority, not a luxury. Try to do something on a daily basis for your mental health, it’s better to proactively manage it rather than react when things get bad.

5. Focus on small wins. It’s easy to want to get back to 100%, but to get there, sometimes we have to focus on feeling 1% better each day. Start small, reward yourself and know that tough times can pass.


10. Do you have any tips about how we help those colleagues who have lost loved ones during the traumatic COVID-19 journey?

Debbie: The Cruse Bereavement Care charity have some great advice on supporting people who have lost loved ones either to COVID-19 or for another reason. At Aviva we offer generous bereavement leave, and if further time is needed this can be taken as “bereavement recovery” which is a category of our sick leave policy (which is also generous).

Paul: Grief is again very individual, for some people, throwing themselves back into work will be their coping strategy. For others, they’ll want time off, to reflect and try to process it. It’s once again just letting them know you’re there as an organisation, and flexible with how you want to support them.

When I lost my Dad, I took some time off and then went back to the office. I was greeted with silence, which really didn’t help. There’s also a lot of free services and support for helping those with grief, from small charities to resources online.


11. Sometimes we need to consider the effect on other colleagues/employees who are working with someone with mental health issues. What support/advice can we give them?

Debbie: The most important thing is to consider your own mental wellbeing as well as others. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so you can and should put your mental wellbeing needs as equal to someone else's.

Being clear about what can and can’t be shared with others is a good start, and then sharing what you can so other colleagues have an understand of what is going on and if/how they can help.

Paul: Education around the issue will help, and helping those colleagues try to understand the best way to support that individual will help. But also, they have to focus and put priority on their own mental health. It’s hard to support someone when you’re finding it hard to support yourself.

It’s never easy, but having those difficult conversations as early as possible and finding out how to work as a team even with a colleague who struggles with mental health issues is a better solution than trying to ignore and navigate around it.


12. Can being more resilient be learned?

Debbie: Yes – but you need to dig under what people mean by resilience as it’s too generalised a term. So do you mean managing workload (so training on prioritisation techniques or learning how to say no), or is it more about how comfortable someone is with change (in which case understanding your approach to ambiguity and the change curve can be trained to help people understand why they currently react the way they do with training on how to improve that).

These are just a couple of examples and I would encourage you to consider more deeply exactly what “resilience” you want someone to learn.

Paul: I strongly believe so, however everyone has to define what resilience means to them. For me, a lot of the adversity I’ve faced has been a foundation of what I can deal with today. But there are still areas in my life where I’d easily lack resilience.

There’s also a bigger question around vulnerability, for many people being vulnerable isn’t resilient. It’s a weakness. But for many others, that openness to being vulnerable is a sign of someone who’s resilient and strong. Resilience certainly can be learned, but we have to define what resilience means to that person first.


13. How can we promote positive mental health and have those conversations with teenagers?

Debbie: As a parent of a 25 and 21 year old (the latter of which has a genetic disorder, with multiple hospital stays/surgery etc.) my advice would be by talking (and persevering with that). Find a way to keep the door open for them to share with you.

If teenagers/young adults feel that there is a psychological safe space, they will open up to someone as long as they don’t fear the response they may receive. For positive mental health it’s about encouraging them to accept differences, that not every day is “Instagram perfect” and that just 'okay' is good too. Being accepted for who they are and not having to confirm or keep up with celebrities/others is also a really important message.

Paul: Education around mental health from an early age will really help them see just how normal it is to talk about it, and seek help if they need to. The school system is slowly adjusting, but still with a big focus on academic intelligence I often question why we don’t encourage and look to educate the next generation on the importance of emotional intelligence.

As a Dad of two, I’m here to remind my two sons that if they ever want to talk I’m here, and it’s okay to do so. But I’m also aware that sometimes, I won’t be that best outlet for them, so it’s educating myself on the right places and people to potentially help them too if they needed it.


Thank you for taking the time to read our Q&A. If you're looking to learn how to build resilience and improve the mental health of yourself and those around you, enrol onto our free online training course below.



Thriving at Work report -

Deloitte Report (2017) -

Deloitte Updated report (2020) -

Journaling -

Everymind at Work – Provides mental health support in your employees pockets, whenever they need it –

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Topics: Mental health & wellbeing

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