There has been a vast amount of discussion in the media that looks at how lockdown and social isolation is affecting peoples’ lives, for better or worse.
However, there are many parts of our society with people affected who are marginalised, misunderstood, unable, or do not wish to communicate their concerns, challenges and coping mechanisms on public platforms.
As part of my work as lead trainer for DMA Talent’s Neurodiversity Initiative, as well as working as Training & Liaison Lead for the NHS Bristol Autism Spectrum Service for over 10 years, I am in a fortunate position. Despite the challenges, I am lucky to still have a role whilst this is going on.
On a daily basis, both professionally and personally I am able to speak with people in the neurodiverse community. I specifically work with autistic people, but also regularly encounter people with a range of other neurodevelopmental conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and dyspraxia.
This is hugely important in helping myself and colleagues understand how lockdown and social isolation impacts people. Also, to support people to develop strategies to overcome challenges they encounter every day, some of which are significantly increased by the current situation we find ourselves in with Covid-19 restrictions in place.
A colleague of mine, Dr Angela Armstrong, is Head of Leadership Development at Armstrong and author of The Resilience Club. She has a wealth of experience helping people to work through professional and personal challenges by equipping them with the mindset, skills and behaviours that can assist them.
We discuss some of the challenges that individuals may experience due to lockdown and social isolation, with a particular focus on the neurodiverse community. Followed by tips on how to help manage these situations.
These could be challenges that are having an impact on a colleague or employee, a friend, a family member – or perhaps yourself.
Personally, I do not have a diagnosis of anything, but I have a very active brain, difficulty maintaining focus on one thing, and excess energy that I need to burn off on a daily basis. With the pressures of work and being less able to do the things I usually do to stay active, I have struggled at times and had to develop new strategies to navigate this situation.
Both Angela and I have strong personal connections to people this article may be very relevant to; we all support each other.
During these unpredictable times one thing is certain – we are in this together.
Mental health – social isolation and restrictive living/working environments can lead to increased risk of co-occurring mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. This will be experienced by many people, but generally has a higher prevalence in the neurodiverse community.
For people with anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), coronavirus concerns could significantly exacerbate symptoms and lead to increased or problematic safety behaviours e.g. excessive hand washing, cleaning rituals, catastrophic thinking.
For those who experience low mood or depression, this could also intensify symptoms e.g. over/under eating, sleeping too much/too little, feeling helpless and suicidal thoughts.
Coronavirus will have a significant impact on mental health and social care services, services that were already stretched to capacity. Many people will be extremely isolated, unable to receive their usual support, or encounter specific difficulties and now require additional support, perhaps due to recent unemployment or being furloughed.
“The problem here is the dual effect of core service providers being less able to observe and detect issues early on when there is minimal social interaction and social care facilities being strained due to higher demand. Therefore, vulnerable people at a higher risk of mental health complications could go under the radar. This is where colleagues, family, friends and even neighbours have a pivotal role to play,” Armstrong said.
- If you know anyone who is living alone, whether they are an employee, family member or a friend, then try to ensure you regularly check-in with them. This can help to recognise noticeable changes to behaviour or mood and identify unmet support needs.
- Even if staff have been furloughed or are working from home, maintain regular one-to-one communication, explicitly ask what they need and agree how best to support them both now, and when returning to the workplace.
- Establish the preferred method of communication with a trusted person, some people might prefer video or telephone calls, whereas others may find it easier to communicate via email or text.
- Listen when people communicate their own boundaries and try not to overload them. If too many people are trying to check in or there are seemingly endless video meetings, this can drain energy and build unnecessary pressure to socially interact.
Disruption to usual routines – many individuals, especially autistic people, often have routines in place which provide structure, safety, security and help make sense of the world.
Not being able to do things in the same way, or finding it difficult to establish new routines while restrictions are in place, could have a significant impact on someone’s ability to work, their general wellbeing and mental health.
Some people will be able to manage this, others will have difficulty identifying the need to do this or find it hard to implement the necessary changes, without support.
In addition, uncertainty and constant changes due to the lockdown can make it very stressful to know where someone stands in terms of employment, especially around vague and changeable timescales to return to work date and, if they are parents, when their children will return to school.
Again, this is something we all experience but potentially requires more consideration and support for those who rely on structure and routine to function at their best.
- Try to establish consistent working patterns to give some stability, where possible – but also allow flexibility for those who need it. Only make significant changes when absolutely necessary, ensure to tell people with advance notice when possible, to enable them to discuss any concerns or develop strategies to help with the transition.
- Ask your staff or team members what they need to work at their best or if they have any concerns – a little can go a long way here. Transparency and communication are key.
- Be direct and communicate priorities and deadlines clearly. Ambiguity or lack of communication or direction can have a negative impact. Always ask if there is anything that would prevent someone hitting a target, deadline or goal.
“Encourage people to have a defined space and set times when they are at work and where it is time to relax. Even if this is by using different rooms in the flat/house to serve this purpose. It is essential to isolate work and social/relaxation time, so a person doesn’t feel compelled to work really long hours or try to manage unrealistic workloads,” added Armstrong.
Excess or lack of physical and mental energy – we all have periods during the day or week where we have excess energy or feel lethargic. Some people, perhaps those with ADHD, may need to burn off energy and could have difficulty managing rapid thought patterns or going to sleep.
The more creative individuals out there, something often associated with dyslexia and ADHD, could crave mental and creative stimulation to keep their mind active and maintain good mental health.
- Exercise routines and time slots – encourage people to use the government’s advised one-hour window to exercise – which may be increased for some people with specific needs and a supporting letter. Check advice on www.gov.uk.
- Walking, jogging, running, or cycling can be a hugely beneficial for physical and mental health. Some people in urban areas may not be able to safely exercise outside so something like indoor yoga or dancing to music with a window open could be helpful – ideally while watching trainers online or doing this with colleagues or friends via Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc. to maintain social contact and motivate each other.
- Even if someone can’t go into the garden or outside, try to sit by a window to have lunch and get some fresh air.
- Mental stimulation through puzzles, memory games, drawing, conversation could help keep people occupied and give a much-needed release outlet.
- For some people this is a great time to learn a new skill, language, or do something you have wanted to do but have never had time. Don’t put pressure on someone, or yourself, to do this or make them feel like they are failing if they do not feel able to do this.
“I cannot overstate the importance of eating healthily, staying hydrated and exercising your body and mind – they all help contribute to a positive mindset. For some people, waking up, showering/bathing, getting dressed, eating some food and enjoying their own company is the measure of a good day and that is perfectly fine – if you want to do more, great, if not then coming through this with good health and wellbeing is the main priority. Finding the right routine for you can help manage your energy, reduce boredom, achieve calm, provide motivation, and even provide stimulation to try new things”, stated Armstrong.
Social media and ‘fake news’ – People can experience elevated stress and anxiety due to increased levels of social media use and scaremongering tactics that can be more prevalent with certain news outlets on social media. Especially for those people who are very logical, interpret language literally, or need factual information to rationalise things, reduce uncertainty in their life or understand what is happening.
Social media use can sometimes lead to feelings of inadequacy, or allow information sharing that is misleading or simply untrue.
It is easy to misinterpret social media posts and think that everyone is coping well or regularly mastering yet another craft and new skill. The likelihood is that there are many people struggling through this and we all approach things differently.
- Limit social media use outside of working or daylight hours.
- Try to receive news updates by media with a typical neutral grounding, perhaps the BBC or NHS websites. The Prime Minister’s and government’s daily updates can be a useful source of information to provide clarity on areas of uncertainty.
- ‘Know what you need to know’, then try to get on with life as best as possible without getting consumed by reading about the coronavirus.
“Remember, self-worth is about who you are as a person, your positive influence on family, friends, pets or special interests and not just your job title/status. Your capability has not changed, the situation did. You might want to assess whether there are any capabilities that will become more necessary in the ‘new world’. Additional time gained through the limitations on work-related travel, or if you have been furloughed recently, can help you work on things that will assist your long-term future,” concluded Armstrong.
If you would like more information about autism or neurodiversity in the workplace, DMA Talent’s Autism Employer Guide is available on our website as a free download.
Our team are also in the process of creating our new ‘Dyslexia Employer Guide’ and ‘ADHD Employer Guide’. If you, or your organisation, would like to share experiences as a potential case study, please get in touch at [email protected].
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