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Gender, Diversity and Inclusion in CGIAR's Workplaces


April 2020


Mental wellbeing and dealing with isolation

There could be as many as 3 billion people living in lockdown circumstances right now.

For those living alone, this increases the risk of social isolation and loneliness, which is a well-established risk factor for poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, and poorer executive functioning. A recent study noted that the psychological impact of quarantine can be great, resulting in a range of mental health concerns from anxiety and anger to sleep disturbances, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Indeed, a separate study of quarantined patients of SARS, a previous coronavirus outbreak in 2003, found between 10% and 29% suffered PTSD. It’s important to note that loneliness and isolation are not the same things, although they are related.

Loneliness is emotional, while isolation is structural. Loneliness is an emotional response to a lack of connection. We have compiled advice and tips for how you can cope with social isolation and loneliness.

Be aware of the symptoms: When you’re going through a tough time it’s normal to feel down for a while, emotions like sadness and grief are what makes us human. But if you’re feeling sad or miserable most of the time over a long period of time, you might be suffering from anxiety or depression. Look out for signs of distressed mental health in yourself and others. Symptoms may include:

  • Fear and worry about your own health
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
Earlier we shared an anxiety self- assessment tool. Here is an additional Depression test to check if you’re showing any of the warning signs of depression. This won’t give you a diagnosis but it will help you decide the next step.

Address the structural part of isolation: Isolation is related to access, or lack of it. Not having access to the materials or information you need, a belief that your achievements or development may go unnoticed or feeling cut off from the business are all drivers of feeling isolated. Build social connections into your calendar (as mentioned above) and also add in regular one-to-one sessions to review their work, get feedback and receive on-going encouragement from your manager and co-workers.

Actively manage your mental health: Mike Kyrios, Institute’s director of the Órama Institute for Mental Health, Wellbeing and Neuroscience at Flinders University outlined a six-point acronym named STREAM that can be followed by anyone quarantining or working from home.

THE STREAM METHOD S is for Social networking: Talking to others takes attention away from yourself and helps you see that others are struggling with similar things. Recognizing that others have similar concerns can make you feel a little less alone.
  • Set up regular social media, skype or phone calls to keep in touch with family, friends and loved ones. Acknowledge your feelings as they arise and seek support if you start to feel anxious or depressed.

T is for Time out: When you work from home, there’s no lunch hour with co-workers to force your eyes away from the computer screen. Taking breaks and taking care of yourself are essential if you’re going to keep up your momentum and maintain the quality of your work.

  • Set up separate zones for different daily activities – work, relaxation, reflection. Set up alarms on your phone (or use a kitchen timer) to schedule mini breaks to stretch and stay hydrated when working. Consider installing a website blocker to temporarily force you off websites or social media channels like Twitter, which can contribute to further anxiety.

R is for Relaxation: Relaxation strategies can be really helpful to manage anxiety. When you focus on calming and clearing your mind, you can pay attention to what is really going on around you and what is coming up within you.

  • Step outside to get fresh air and take a short stroll in your mini breaks. Plan a daily relaxation time and do whatever relaxes you the most. Try the free mindfulness applications mentioned above.

E is for Exercise and Entertainment: For those who aren’t used to spending a lot of consecutive time at home, boredom comes easily.

  • Former monk Jay Shetty shared that to embrace the feeling of solitude, people should do at least one thing daily that brings them joy, whether that’s reading a book, learning something new, trying a new instrument or beginning a creative project. Morning exercise is particularly helpful to assist with your mood through the day – try subscribe for online exercise videos or classes or search for free home workouts.

A is for Alternative thinking: The novelty and uncertainty that the current pandemic present will cause increased tension and stress. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of staying home during this period, look at the ways in which it can be a positive opportunity.

  • Reframe “I am stuck inside” to “I can finally focus on my home and myself.” Remind yourself that there is a bigger purpose because we are saving lives by quarantining. It gives you reason and rationale for continuing to put up with the situation. Consider starting a gratitude journal – according to a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Florida, having participants write down a list of positive events at the close of a day – and why the events made them happy – lowered their self-reported stress levels and gave them a greater sense of calm at night.

M is for being Mindful of others: Meaningful connection can occur even from the recommended six feet of social distance between you and your neighbor — and it begins with compassion. Compassion is the intention to be of benefit to others and it starts in the mind. From there we see possibilities for ourselves and others that are rich with hope and ripe with opportunity.

  • Ask yourself – How can I help this person to have a better day? If you’re not under strict isolation rules yourself, and you’re in a position to do so, find ways to support those in need by offering to run errands and collect supplies for them. Amplify good news stories and honor caregivers working tirelessly to resolve the situation. Reach out to those who may be feeling alone or concerned can benefit both you and the person receiving support. Ping them and set up a call.

Want to know more?

The World Economic Forum has compiled advice and tips for people who have been coping with social isolation and loneliness based on the experiences of astronauts and submariners.
Commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Peggy Whitson has spent a cumulative total of 665 days in space, which includes two six-month tours of duty. She shares her tips in this video here. .

All the guides in the series