Maintaining wellbeing during COVID-19

As calls to the AOP Peer Support Line rise following the COVID-19 outbreak, OT  explores how optometrists can manage their wellbeing and mental health during the crisis

health professionals

With the UK in a period of lockdown and social distancing measures in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), levels of stress and anxiety have increased. This is particularly true for optometrists, as practices temporarily close their doors or operate only emergency services.

Research by the University of Sheffield and Ulster University found a spike in the number of people reporting significant levels of depression and anxiety in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown announcement on 23 March.

Before the announcement, 16% of research participants reported significant depression and 17% reported significant anxiety. On 24 March, the day after the Prime Minister’s statement, 38% of study participants reported significant depression, while 36% reported significant anxiety.

Research from market intelligence agency, Mintel, also found the number of adults indicating extreme levels of concern about exposure to COVID-19 has more than doubled in the past few weeks.

Supporting members

The AOP provides a Peer Support Line that offers members a confidential space to discuss their concerns with a trained peer. The support line can be accessed by calling: 0800 870 8401.

AOP membership benefits officer, Sarah Melzack, told OT the helpline has seen a “steep” increase in phone calls during the outbreak, with calls rising to 49 in the past month, compared to 13 this time last year.

Based on research with members, Ms Melzack highlighted two key themes of concern: “Fear of the unknown, and the overwhelm of not knowing what the next week, month or next few months could hold, as well as the financial concerns around furlough, practice closures, locum practitioners and shift reductions.”

The support line has also received some calls from university and pre-registration students, as well as newly-qualified optometrists who are particularly cautious around the changing guidelines.

While the Peer Support Line does not provide advice, it offers a space for members to share “anything that is worrying you. Large or small, COVID-19 related or not,” Ms Melzack said, highlighting that the peer volunteers are “not only walking in similar shoes to you right now and understand, but are absolutely willing to listen to you and help you find a bit of perspective or release in being able to talk about those problems.”

The AOP will be hosting a series of wellbeing webinars from May onwards exploring different aspects of wellbeing, such as sleep and nutrition.

During times of uncertainty and high stress, it’s important to remember that no one is alone in how they feel

Dr Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer for Headspace

Mental health charities have emphasised the importance of looking after personal wellbeing during the outbreak, as the public adapt to new ways of working and living.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, mindfulness app, Headspace, has seen a 15-fold increase in UK users starting the stressed calming meditation, along with a 12-fold increase in UK users starting the reframing anxiety at-home workout.

Speaking to OT about the wellbeing implications of COVID-19, Dr Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer for Headspace, called it a “challenging and uncertain time for optometrists.”

“The stress and anxiety brought by all this uncertainty can negatively impact optometrists who are still working, leading to disengagement and loss of focus, while those now self-isolating at home may feel lonely and worried about the future and their families,” she continued.

Dr Jones Bell added: “For those working from home - whether they lead a team or are part of one - it can feel isolating to adjust to this new way of working. During times of uncertainty and high stress, it’s important to remember that no one is alone in how they feel.”

Highlighting the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, Dr Jones Bell acknowledged that though “it might seem a little like putting a plaster on a broken bone” during the outbreak, “it’s also vital optometrists take care of their minds.”

“With so much uncertainty, taking a short amount of time out to focus on the mind is more important than ever. It’s an indispensable tool for optometrists still seeing patients or self-isolating, helping them through this unprecedented and challenging period,” she continued.

Alongside providing the mindfulness app, Headspace has also created additional resources addressing wellbeing during COVID-19.

Also emphasising the importance of mental health and wellbeing, head of information at Mind, Stephen Buckley, told OT: “It is vital to look after your wellbeing during this time.”

Mr Buckley recommended practical steps to look after wellbeing include creating new routines, eating well and staying hydrated as well as engaging in some physical activity. Accessing nature is also beneficial for wellbeing, he added, even sitting by a window or taking care of a plant.

“It’s really important to stay connected with other people, especially if you don’t have your regular contact with colleagues during this time,” he continued. Adding: “Make time for regular check-ins with friends and family on the phone or Skype in your routine.”

Managing wellbeing

Optometrist and rapid transformation therapy practitioner and mindfulness coach, Sheena Tanna-Shah, told OT that the Vision Express store where she and her husband both practice closed on 25 March and the staff were furloughed.

While Ms Tanna-Shah said the experience so far has been a “positive learning curve” for the family in learning to adapt and slow down, she has seen a number of key concerns amongst optometrists, particularly highlighting financial fears as well as uncertainty for how long practices will be closed.

For those operating emergency appointments, some have reported feeling anxious or worried around contracting the virus themselves.

Highlighting some of the key emotions optometrists may be feeling during the outbreak, Ms Tanna-Shah highlighted: “Worry, anxiety, uncertainty, and the overwhelm of trying to keep up to date with the changing information. A lot of people are also feeling lonely. They are used to seeing patients every day and working with a team.”

Sheena Tanna-Shah, optometrist, rapid transformation therapy practitioner and mindfulness coach, offers her techniques for mindfulness

Discussing ways optometrists can maintain their wellbeing during the lockdown period, Ms Tanna-Shah also highlighted the need for a routine and healthy eating. She also recommended planning “something in the morning and something in the afternoon” to form a purpose for the day.

For those concerned about finances, Ms Tanna-Shah recommended taking the time to physically write down expenses, incomings and outgoings, commenting: “Sometimes thoughts can escalate, but when you write it down in black and white the reality may not be the same as the stresses in your mind.”

“If you are worried, speak to an accountant to get some peace of mind or reassurance and also take a look at the financial support available,” she added.

Ms Tanna-Shah also highlighted the benefits of mindfulness and meditation to help “stop the nonstop mind chatter” from worry, overwhelm or stress.

“People sometimes worry they can’t meditate or be mindful but it only takes a couple of minutes a day to get started,” Ms Tanna-Shah said. “Drop the notion that you have to sit in the lotus position chanting for two hours. Just take a couple of minutes to give it a go. It’s a skill you already have.”

The wellbeing coach also encouraged optometrists to use this time to complete CET or training. While on furlough, practitioners are not allowed to work, but training is permitted.

“Because you are not allowed to work you may be missing that feeling of being an optometrist or being in the field. Continuing your education feels like you are still enhancing your knowledge and skills,” Ms Tanna-Shah said.

She added: “It is the perfect time to keep up to date.”

OT endeavours to keep the most up-to-date news on our website and this information was correct when published. However, the situation regarding COVID-19 is rapidly evolving. Please check OT’s rolling optics-specific coverage for the latest news and guidance on COVID-19.