Stress, anxiety and feelings of loneliness – these are some of the psychological effects of nation-wide lockdown. With no clear end in sight, it is important to consider the psychological burden of lockdown 2.0. What can employers and employees do to mitigate the negative effects and build a supportive environment going forward?
Currently a third of the world’s population, approximately 2.6 billion people, is living under some kind of forced lockdown. Anxiety over personal health and safety, uncertainty and stress over economic stability, as well as a lack of control over choices serve as ingredients in a melting pot of psychological maladies
According to the World Health Organisation, we are facing a “secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020”. In South Africa, with over a month of stringent lockdown behind us, the resulting stress and loneliness have, according to SA Depression and Anxiety Group, “prompted an upsurge in mental health complaints”.
While 1 May will see the gradual easing of restrictions, there is no clear end in sight. Our world has been disrupted and destabilised. As a result, taking action to mitigate the toxic effects of COVID-19 lockdowns is more important than ever.
What can employers do?
In South Africa, many employers are facing severe financial constraints, with some struggling to pay employees’ salaries. Understandably, their initial focus has been on ensuring physical protection against infection, enabling business continuity and securing financial support where it has been made available. However, as noted by Nadine Mather, Senior Associate at Bowmans, employers should be “encouraged to take whatever measures are reasonably available to them to help safeguard the mental health of their employees”. According to Mather, the Occupational Health and Safety Act places a duty on every employer to, as far as reasonably practicable, provide a working environment that is without risk to the health and safety of its employees. This includes their mental health. So what can you as an employer do, within reasonable bounds, to mitigate the psychological burden of lockdown 2.0?
Whether employees are working remotely or waiting at home for further information, it is vital for employers to maintain a reasonable degree of communication. Communication does not only serve to maintain organisational cohesion during this period of disruption, but could make a significant difference to employee morale and mental wellbeing. The degree to which employers maintain contact with employees will depend on the needs of the organisation. The communication should, however, be frequent enough and of a sufficient quality to be deemed meaningful.
Employers can play a vital role in creating awareness amongst employees of strategies to deal with stress and anxiety. Some companies may have the available resources to directly offer employees mental health services. However, with an abundance of reputable, fact-checked resources available online, employers can play a facilitation role, by distributing knowledge through company newsletters, WhatsApp groups and social media, or an additional section on their website. This is a time where creative problem solving is integral to business survival. Ensuring company cohesion and supporting the mental health of employees will in turn cultivate the productivity and innovation vital to overcoming disruption.
What should employees do?
The responsibility does not only rest of the shoulders of employers. Employees need to take control of their mental wellbeing by practising self-care and adopting healthy, rather than destructive, coping strategies.
A major impact of lockdown is the disruption of personal routines. According to Deborah Serani, PsyD, professor of psychology at Adelphi University:
[S]tudies in resiliency during traumatic events encourage keeping a routine to your day … unstructured time can create boredom, spikes in anxiety or depression, which can lead to unhealthy patterns of coping.
Developing a schedule for your day will assist in structuring your new work-home balance as well as any form of decision fatigue that may arise.
Exercise is a good way to stay healthy and entertained. It is not only a useful facet of a daily routine, but furthermore serves to boost mood and cognitive function. Fitness routines do not have to be elaborate, take up a lot of time or require equipment. Here are some free online resources to keep you sweating at home:
Diet is such an important component of mental health that it has inspired an entire field of medicine called nutritional psychiatry. What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood. Your food powers your brain, which performs best when fed premium fuel. As noted by a Harvard Medical School contributor, Eva Selhub, MD:
Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.
When you are feeling anxious, depressed or frustrated, it can be tempting to indulge in “feel-good” foods including refined carbohydrates as well as processed and sugary foods and beverages. Research shows, however, that such foods will have the opposite effect on your short-term mood and long-term health. Rather, according to Trello, you should:
[E]at plants, and lots of them, including fruits and veggies, whole grains (in unprocessed form, ideally), seeds and nuts, with some lean proteins like fish and yogurt.
Mindfulness is described as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”. Meditation is a low-cost approach to relaxation, mood stabilisation, and cultivating a long-term approach to dealing with stress. It is a practice of looking inward to experience our sensations, emotions, and thoughts in one space and in one moment. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that this practice can help people deal with distracting thoughts and overcome decision fatigue. By using mindfulness mediation, you can recognise negative thoughts and train yourself to experience them differently. Furthermore, practising mindfulness meditation for just ten minutes a day promises to improve concentration and information retention.
This is a marathon, not a sprint
It is still impossible to predict just how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the world we live, work and play in. One thing is sure, though. This is not a sprint but a marathon. In order for us to overcome challenges and think of creative solutions, we need to have healthy hearts and minds. Employers and employees not only need to acknowledge the psychological stress of uncertainty, but will have to work together to tackle this secondary epidemic in a systematic and meaningful manner.