• We are faced with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions as we move into darker months, and continue to largely work from home in isolated situations – it's more important than ever to implement self-care

  • Counsellor Vic Leeson offers advice on how to look after yourself, and examines what employers could be doing to check in on their employees mental health

  • If you are struggling at this time, our therapists and counsellors are here to support you – find yours here 

The autumnal equinox has been and gone and the trees are a riotous blaze of colour. Nature continues to follow time-old patterns but for many of us life this year has been extremely unsettling.

September was heralded by many as a “return-to-normal” when in fact the normal of before feels like it no longer exists. With the idea of a sense of ‘returning’ we may have reflected on our experiences over the previous months with a view that things would be different in the autumn and winter. Yet we are now experiencing the second wave of the Covid pandemic and feelings are heightened. You may be asking yourself, how will I cope over the next few months? Will I be left feeling isolated? Will I be able to meet all my needs? What do I need to get through this difficult time? It goes without saying that these also accompany worries over the wellbeing of self and loved ones, job security, financial demands along with a general feeling of a lack of safety.

As our lack of certainty and safety will continue for some time, how can we support ourselves as well as, how can employers support what you need and the needs of all their employees?

Jodie Hill of Thrive Law in Leeds – a specialist employment law and mental health firm – says, “Communication is so important. Employers must stay connected with their teams, especially when working remotely to reduce the impact of social isolation. Throughout lockdown we were forced to adapt to new, disconnected and disjointed ways of working but back then, the seasons were working with us as summer was around the corner. There was a glimmer of hope as lockdown started to ease. Yet, now as the nights get longer and it gets colder, our mental health is impacted."

Social relationships are needed to combat loneliness and offer us much needed support in times of need yet the restrictions on connecting to our families, friends and loved ones reduce our available support systems. If these aren’t available to us this can make it difficult to connect to others and in turn, give us the support we need when things feel difficult. Another reason why connection and communication via the workplace is so important. Hill provides wise suggestions for employers, “With the seasons against us and the uncertainty increasing, coupled with the continued home working and new restrictions, we need to be able to check in with our teams and find out what support, if any, we can give to them as an employer. This also helps us to understand what the causes of any potential decline may be, helping an employer target the training and support in areas the team really need”.

The change of season can also leave people feeling deflated. The reduction in light during the autumn and winter months affects our circadian rhythms and reduces our hormone levels; most noticeably melatonin and serotonin. Subsequently, our bodies own way of keeping us alert and energised (melatonin) and regulating our mood (serotonin) becomes disrupted leaving us feeling lethargic and low in mood which can then impact on other day-to-day functioning such as sleep, appetite and concentration.

Ruth Allen, an outdoor and online counselling psychotherapist based in the Peak District suggests it may be helpful to ask the following question, “What is happening to you and in you right now If you are restless, overwhelmed and showing all the signs of a stressed mind-body then your focus will likely be taking measures to reduce your stress load – you might want to begin with writing a list of calm things that work for you to get started with”. Alternatively Allen suggests that, “If you are feeling low, unresponsive, feeling depressed or despairing then your focus will likely be taking measures to introduce a bit of active movement into your mind and body. If you are coming into autumn and winter feeling despondent, disengaged and hopeless then you might want to write a list of things that once or could again, bring you a sense of vitality”

In my work with a range of clients we are exploring what adjustments they can make to accommodate this seasonal mood shift but as Allen empathically asserts, “only you can know the truly, glorious idiosyncratic things that work for you on a good day”.

How to self-care as we move into darker months

Compensating for the reduction in natural sunlight by incorporating some time outside in your daily routine during daylight hours, going for a lunchtime walk for example, may be extremely beneficial. Alternatively, spending peaceful time in an outdoor space or bringing in nature into the home may prove the calming influence you need. You may be concerned that taking an extended lunch break, to allow these changes, may not be considered or accommodated by your employer. Arm yourself with the information above to convey to them just how prevalent the need for self-care and flexible working is right now. For employers, listen to your employees needs and introduce that flexibility into working patterns particularly over the autumn and winter months. This can strengthen working relationships as your employees feel heard and valued.

If time outside in daylight hours is restricted for other reasons, engaging in some light therapy may also be worth considering through the use of light boxes. Other steps that you can implement involve eating the right diet and engaging in exercise.

Further recommendations from Hill include mental health risk assessment, a tool used to identify work factors both employers and employees consider as having a detrimental effect on an employees’ mental wellbeing. “Mental health risk assessments can be helpful. Even if your employers have already done these this year, ask them to conduct them again”. Could you check with your employer to see whether this has been actioned and if not, is this something they may consider in terms of supporting yours and your colleagues wellbeing?

Whatever your work situation right now, taking time to check in with yourself and consider how you can support yourself through the autumn and winter months – and how your employer can support you to support yourself – could provide you with the much needed insight. and be the prompt for making the nurturing changes needed, to counteract the impact of the current seasons.

Vic Leeson is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Leeds and online

Further reading

Grounding exercise to regulate anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic

The psychological impact of coronavirus

What autumn can teach us about letting go

Why autumn might be the right time to find a therapist

6 ways to cope with the mental health impact of redundancy