Watch: How to care for your mental health during the coronavirus quarantine

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Living under quarantine can have a profound impact on a person’s psyche.

At Quartz, we know this from personal experience now, but we also know we’re not alone. Nearly 800 readers around the world joined executive editor Heather Landy on April 2 for the third session in our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop series. The topic this week: minding mental health.

Here’s a recap of what we learned.

The symptoms of trauma in quarantine

Rima Styra, a staff psychiatrist at University Health Network in Toronto and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, was part of a research team that studied the effects of quarantine during a 2003 SARS outbreak in Canada, when 15,000 people were in quarantine in Toronto. That research has proven valuable for the millions of people under quarantine, self-imposed or otherwise, to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Notably, nearly 30% of those surveyed reported experiencing symptoms that aligned with those of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with including intrusive thoughts, a tendency to avoid situations, disturbed sleep, anxiety, depression, and anger. People living under quarantine “can become quite hyper-vigilant of their own surroundings,” Styra said.

Quarantine can lead to these symptoms in anyone, but during the SARS outbreak, the longer people were in quarantine, the more pronounced these problems became. “Age, marital status, level of education really didn’t affect the outcomes,” Styra said. People with higher combined incomes, however, did have less symptomatology than people who would have felt a more significant financial impact.

After the quarantine ended, some people felt stigmatized. They noticed fewer invitations to gatherings and fewer check-ins from friends, which added to their isolation, depression, and traumatization, Styra noted.

The participants in her study felt less distressed when they understood why they were in quarantine. “Information helps to mitigate many of the effects of quarantine,” Styra said, whether it’s coming from employers, government officials, or the media.

What you can do to counteract the effects of quarantine-induced anxiety

Styra offered several tips to protect yourself against developing PTSD-like symptoms:

  1. Stay in touch.  Fortunately, today’s technology is much better for video conferencing than it was during the SARS epidemic. “If you’re alone and isolated, there are many resources available,” said Styra. Look for groups on the internet, and seek state and provincial agencies to find the specific support network—perhaps for students, or the elderly, or disabled—that’s right for you.
  2. Set boundaries. If you’re in a household with others, set aside time—an hour or 90 minutes—to have to yourself, but also plan activities you can do together, like preparing a meal. “Things like meditation can be helpful to deal with feelings that are rising when you’re isolated with other people and with children,” said Strya.
  3. Exercise. Stay safely away from other people, but get outside if you’re able.
  4. Limit social media as needed. The information you find online can be helpful, but overwhelming. Choose the sources you feel are trustworthy and credible and limit the time you spend scrolling through news and updates.
  5. Continue to see your healthcare provider. Use telemedicine and video calls to see your mental health professional. If you’re in a particularly vulnerable situation—if you’re at home with an abusive partner, for instance—seek out online support groups that specialize in your needs.
  6. Keep a routine you follow on a daily basis. This could involve starting or getting back to old hobbies you’ve dropped.
  7. Find volunteer opportunities. Some people are making masks for healthcare workers. You can also make phone calls to those who are isolated and alone, including the elderly.
  8. Join group chats with work. Jump in on those calls at the office, not only to maintain your own social connections but to see if you can help someone else in need.

Symptoms to watch for in loved ones

Whether you are living with someone or checking in on a loved one regularly on video calls, watch them for signs of anxiety and depression, Styra said. She advised making note of increased crying and tearfulness, or a loss of interest in talking about things that used to be of interest (for example, grandkids or a favorite show), and an inability to focus on the future and future plans.

When you see these things, your intervention can be a straightforward observation. Landy suggested a simple, “Hi, mom, I’ve noticed that you’ve been expressing x, y, and z. I think it’s time for you to call this hotline.” Styra confirmed it’s an appropriate way in.

“One of the best things we can do is validate [someone’s] concerns,” said Styra. Tell your family member, friend, or colleague: “I want to help you. I want to hear what’s worrying you at this point.” Practicing active, supportive listening, which involves putting judgement aside and repeating back what you hear another person expressing, and resisting the urge to offer advice, also can be helpful.

“If you still have concerns, say ‘I know there’s a lot of things that are going on. It might be really helpful for you to talk to someone. Here’s the phone number. Why don’t you give them a call?’ Or ‘Here’s a way for you to get in touch with a healthcare provider,” Styra said.

Should you suspect there might be suicidal ideation, Styra said, you may want to contact a public health agency and ask them to intervene.

How to support employees’ emotional health during the coronavirus quarantine

Next up was David Hanrahan, chief human resources officer at Eventbrite. The company, which makes planning and ticketing tools for event creators, already had a handful of ”remotelings” before the pandemic. But the vast majority of Eventbrite’s employees were accustomed to working together in an office and are now adapting to working from home.

“We think people are inherently social. We think our employees want to gather. And so now we have to find new ways to keep them connect connected in this kind of virtual environment,” Hanrahan said.

His tips for other HR professionals, no matter the size of their company, included:

  • Create communities and over-communicate. Every other day, the CEO of EventBrite leads a “hearts-to-hearts” q&a sessions on Zoom.
  • Create a virtual room. “We have a Slack channel where people can ask questions” about all of this,  Hanrahan explained. “That flow of information becomes vital when you’re all disconnected.”
  • Create panel sessions. Eventbrite asked its seasoned “remotelings” to join an online discussion about the art of working from home. The company also has held a panel discussion on leading through uncertainty, and a session on parenting.
  • Do fun things. Hanahan and others are reading books for employees’ children. “Keep some levity in the day,” he said. Get creative.
  • Make sure your employees know who you are. When your team is spread out around the world, don’t consider it a given that everyone knows the names and faces of HR personnel. Offer reminders.
  • Turn to outside tools. “HR people can find themselves in a mode of having to be the therapist, but not having that skillset,” he said. To deal with the wave of questions and anxiety, he suggests looking into tools like Modern Health, which links employees to licensed professionals and is currently offering free services to address mental health issues related to Covid-19.
  • Hold fireside chats and openly discuss your own struggles. Bring in guest speakers, if you need to. “In HR, your job is to provide the forum and then send the signal that  mental health is important,” he said.
  • Don’t allow mental health to be stigmatized. Talking about it openly is a good start.

Be a mindful leader

The session wrapped with Julie Flynn Badal, founder and director of Working Well in New York, which teaches mindfulness practices to individuals and executives. A certified yoga and meditation teacher, she led a mindfulness meditation you can check out for yourself near the end of the video above. Mindfulness exercises, she noted, are a well-researched intervention to help soothe the symptoms of PTSD.

“I think mindful leadership really is about taking the time to connect and be concerned with the overall wellbeing of your team,” said Flynn Badal. To her, that’s about finding ways “to collaborate and co-create purpose, and move forward in a way that takes each person into consideration.”

“It’s prioritizing the relationship over the outcome,” she added. “Leaders are being called to be more aware, to be more sensitive, to take that time, to pause, to check in on their teams, to shift the way they’re working, to perhaps change their overall mission as we go through this.”

Online coaching and skill sites our guest speakers mentioned on the call

Better Manager

Better Up


Sayge Executive Coach

Telehealth mental health resources

Modern Health, free community page

Covid-19 resources from the American Psychiatric Association

All the ways to get free therapy during the coronavirus pandemic (Fast Company)

Note: Many healthcare providers offer online telehealth coverage, though awareness among employees is often low. Check with your health provider or HR team if you’re unsure about your benefits.

Further reading from Quartz

Quarantine has a serious impact on mental health. Here’s how to support yourself and others

Three stress-reducing tips for your team during the coronavirus crisis

Essential ground rules for when you and your partner both work from home

Listen to nature from eight of the US National Parks to stay calm and productive

The lessons of cherry blossoms are most relevant during the coronavirus pandemic

15 ways to practice self-care in the time of coronavirus

How to combat loneliness when you’re stuck working from home