CEO of H&H Group plc on combatting winter mental health challenges during COVID-19

Richard Rankin, CEO of network partner, H&H Group plc talks around the challenges of maintaining good mental health and wellbeing for those living in rural communities during the covid-19 pandemic.

As the clocks change, days shorten and darkness draws in, it is hard for the nation not to feel anxious heading into a COVID winter. The pandemic has caused a separate epidemic of its own, with a surge in people reporting mental health difficulties during 2020. Now, not only does the risk of infection rise with colder weather, but the dark nights mean looking after our mental wellbeing becomes more challenging too.

Richard Rankin, reflects on what this means for rural lives, by discussing what can be done to support those in and around the wider farming community who are essential to keeping the nation fed.

“Summer is well and truly over, and while it was already difficult to stay positive during lockdown in the spring, at least the nation had the sun on its face and lengthening evenings to get out for those daily walks to keep it motivated. While mental health problems can affect anyone, anywhere and at any time of day, with the clocks changing and winter rapidly approaching, I expect a lot of us will already be beginning to experience seasonal lows. Working to keep mentally and physically fit is hard enough in normal times, so now mutual support is going to be a key factor in getting us through the next six months.

“With many Northern agricultural regions already experiencing second lockdowns, it will be more important than ever to check in with our communities and be there for one another in times of loneliness as the pandemic extends into winter. Especially for those in rural industries like farming, where the isolation of the job is well known.

“For farmers, while not affected by work from home guidance as they already mostly work alone, however the places that did offer that vital connectivity and social contact have been forced to change. Harrison & Hetherington have revolutionised livestock auctioneering with its online sales, but without the sociability that comes with the weekly marts, engaging face to face with others in farming has become very difficult. For generations marts have been a centre for trade, but also for social relationships. For farmers who spend most of their time alone out in the fields, the marts are somewhere they can discuss the trade, the weather, the crops, and catch up with each other as friends. Being removed from this environment and unable to discuss the ups and downs of farming and life with those who understand will undoubtedly put pressure on people’s mental health.  How do they find the release valve or mentally reboot?

“That’s why during this winter, it will be vital to take advantage of the fact that it has never been easier to engage digitally with others. It’s up to the less senior members of our communities to provide help to the older farming generation to get online and stay connected with friends, family and fellow farmers. This will go a long way to fight isolation. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, so we should be making the relative state of everyone’s mental health a much more normal topic of conversation. Bringing awareness to our state of wellbeing and to that of others means informing one another of how we are really feeling.  “Fine” will no longer cut it. Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported when talking about mental health, so connecting online will be a much-needed forum for those feeling mentally fatigued while helping to make stigma a thing of the past.

“Across all of our businesses here at H&H, there are a number of things we’ve been doing to keep everyone engaged and in contact with one another. We’ve hosted virtual coffee mornings, created a culture of daily check-ins, and shared business updates and employee stories through daily and weekly emails. Moving into the darker months, it is not just colleagues that will need uplifting. As rural communities are facing economic slowdowns unlike any other, with Brexit around the corner, and COVID-19 spreading again, we can all do something to help – no matter how small. Random acts of kindness will build personal and community resilience just like for H&H it has helped us build business resilience.”

Here are some things we can do to help others, which could change someone’s day, week, or even their life:

  • Check in with local elderly neighbours, bake them a cake and knock on the door or tap the window to check people living alone are okay
  • Plate an extra dinner plate if you know someone isn’t cooking for themselves
  • If you see a farmer in their field, stop to see how their day is, comment on the weather or ask how their daily work is going
  • Make one call each day to a family member, neighbour or friend you haven’t spoken to for a while
  • Take your spare books up to the bus shelter or phone box for exchange – pop a notice in the village notice board to spread the message
  • Offer to walk an elderly person’s dog, especially as the weather gets worse, and stay for a chat on the doorstep when you return
  • Offer to buy some bits from the shop for anyone you know is shielding or vulnerable
  • When you see someone on their own, smile and say hello, even try and chat
  • Offer to tidy someone’s garden
  • ​Take someone’s bin back in

“The list could be endless, the post is to think of others, being mindful and considerate”.

“As with anything mental health related, it is also most important to look after you. So, if that means making time to listen to some chilled music, to make sure you fit some exercise in, have that glass of wine or extra biscuit, watch a movie, meditate, or get to bed early and read a book, make sure you are doing whatever you need to do to stave off those negative thought patterns and recharge those mental health batteries. Recognising that it’s okay to have a low day goes hand in hand with also working hard to make sure it doesn’t turn into a bad week, or a bad month. Mental health can snowball, so as the clocks change, being there for someone or catching it early and talking before it escalates will be the best way for our communities to weather this coming winter.”