Stress and Mental Health challenges at work after Covid... One Year On
At a time when mental health is talked about more openly it has become a very important factor to feature in the work environment given that mental health problems affect around one in four people according to the mental health charity MIND.
Mental Health, like physical health, affects us all and can range from the well-being to individuals suffering from severe problems over a prolonged time such as anxiety, depression, phobias, eating problems, bipolar and can lead to suicidal thoughts. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), work can hugely impact an individual’s mental health by either making a person feel good about themselves or trigger problems.
Stress through work is defined by the Health and Safety Executive HSE as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. Stress in the workplace is mainly caused by overwork, too many tasks and pressure to perform. Persistent stress, overtime and feeling that you are not doing well can lead to physical and mental illness. But also lack of feedback from the superiors can be burdensome. Stress is not an illness itself, but the connection between stress and mental health conditions especially work related stress is considered a form of poor mental health according to CIPD.
MIND reported that 60% of adults and 68% of young people in June 2020 said their mental health deteriorated during lockdown. Despite the landmark Mental Health in the Pandemic study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation stating that anxiety about the pandemic has become less common, falling from 62% of those surveyed in March 2020 to 42% in February 2021, it still shows overall that one year on the pandemic has had ‘wide and deep emotional impacts on UK adults’.. The pandemic has either sparked or amplified much more serious mental-health problems. And psychologists are increasingly raising concerns that these may linger in the longer term.
The global Covid-19 pandemic seems to have added to already existing working place stresses with the addition of fear of exposure to the virus when returning to the office, job loss or loss of income, finding working from home isolating and struggling to combine home-schooling and keeping up with the demands of work, which has led to overwork and very long working hours without much free time.
Whilst employees adjust to new ways of working and grapple with stress and anxiety triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, employers have to be aware that they play a critical role in these uncertain times. Keeping up communication between management and workers, either in small groups or on a one-to-one level is vital, as is listening and thinking about how to avoid stress and burn-outs by considering, if necessary, measures like employing temporary workers. With many workers returning to the office after a year working from home employers can help to alleviate anxiety and stress by continuing good communication, offering reassurance and making sure company health protocols are clear. Health guidelines should be shared in a timely manner (regularly, but not too often) which can be accessed by all employees as well as providing the essentials such as hand sanitizers, surface cleaners and disposable hand towels.
Another aspect to consider is the long term effects of Covid 19. If, unfortunately, workers have caught Covid and are still struggling with so called “Long Covid” this can render people unable to work for months. Chinese studies from the first wave of the pandemic show about one in two people developed “Long Covid syndrome”. Of more than 1,700 Covid patients, 76 percent still had at least one symptom after up to six months such as exhaustion or muscle pain. In a UK-study according to Sky news article dated24th March 2021 more than a quarter of those suffering with long covid had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression at their five-month follow-up. Twelve percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while almost half (46%) experienced reduced physical performance.
It is causing a major long-term challenge for employers and employees alike and while Long Covid is not yet a formal diagnosis it is likely that as more research is conducted it could be recognised as a long-term health condition. It has been suggested that more than 80 Long Covid clinics can be opened by NHS in England with an extra £24 million funding, according to an article in The Independent dated 15th April 2021.
It’s recommended that employers conduct individual risk assessments with any staff member experiencing Long Covid and to make reasonable adjustments for these workers. Employers need avoid adding even more stress for employees, as they might feel anxious about financial and future consequences, how a perceived lesser work performance will affect their job’s future whilst continue to feel unwell, it’s for employers to deal with each employee on an individual one-to-one basis.
As every one of us has been impacted by the pandemic and dealt with stress by relieving it through various ways such as relaxation, mindfulness, exercise and keeping connected, there are still areas to look into. Be it in context with return to work after working from home or being affected by Long Covid, a sympathetic and accommodating employer, who can introduce temporary adjustments to working practices such as reduced hours can make all the difference for stress reduction in the work place leading to overall wellbeing and a happier work-life balance and helping to adapt to a changed work environment.
Training for everyone within a company is vital as the more we know how to spot the signs of a person struggling with their mental health or stress the quicker we can act and provide them with the support they need.