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The Mental Health Pandemic

As the lock down eases for some, our children have returned to school and the government are busy trying to convince us to return to the cities and the offices, it would be easy to think that we are resuming to some level of normality. However, dig a little deeper under the surface and the truth is a far cry. Levels of anxiety and depression have been significantly elevated as people struggle with isolation, illness, and uncertainty. Research is beginning to reveal the contours of pandemic related mental health issues that many predicted.

The impact of covid-19 on anxiety levels

People treated for covid-19 have a 40% chance of post-traumatic stress disorder, that alone will amount to tens of thousands of people needing some kind of help. However, indirectly the virus has also had sweeping effects on the mental health of so many. The general population is also suffering the effects of isolation, disruption of their social networks, fear of catching and passing the virus, and of course now with furlough coming to an end in October, concerns about employment and money.

At the start of lock-down anxiety levels were initially raised as we all faced something that for many of us, we have never witnessed; a near standstill of society, as the planes, trains, and non-essential services grounded to a halt. It affected people differently of course but across much of Europe and the rest of the world, it had a significant effect on mental health, affecting even people who are usually very calm and measured.  Researchers at University College London conducted a study of the impact on mental health on 50,000 people in the UK and found that young people were impacted the most with poor mental health across every single measure, including factors such as life satisfaction, suicidal thoughts, and self-harming. Results are also the worst among lower-income households and people living alone.

Older people seemed to have faired better or have not seen any major change to their well-being levels, particularly those who usually have some level of social isolation in their normal course of life.  Their coping mechanism or natural resilience has enabled them to continue in their usual pattern of living.

According to the ONS, it seems that people who are married or co-habiting have seen their anxiety levels double; possibly related to having children in some cases, worried about their financial situation or struggling to balance working from home and managing to homeschool their children adequately, whilst also trying to cope with their children’s anxiety. So many factors come into play, guilt about whether they’re doing a good job with the children, whether your being as productive for work at a time when jobs could be quite vulnerable – all the issues that would be testing at the best of times – let alone during a health pandemic.

Overall, 37% of adults in the UK had higher levels of anxiety in May compared to before the pandemic began where it was at 21%, and whilst the numbers themselves may not seems very high I suspect there is a greater level of anxiety in society than is being registered with GP’s surgery or official statistics.  In most cases, we keep calm and carry on.

Mental Health Services

Mental health services are inevitably going to struggle to help the people most affected.  The use of mindfulness apps has seen a sharp increase as people grapple to try and calm their thoughts with local solutions. Exercise and walking have also seen a much need increase, as people try and reduce their stress levels and shouldn’t be underestimated in any way.  Socialising with family and friends through technology is key and cost-effective, it has a very positive effect on mental health as you hear a familiar voice and nostalgic tone.  Furthermore, just checking in on family and friends with ‘What’s App’ is very useful.  Music is also a powerful way of creating positive vibes and taking you to a happy place for many, it can be mood-lifting and is known to release endorphins.

The importance of employee engagement

For organisations throughout the world where so much of their workforce is now remote, this will also bring some fundamental challenges as they struggle to maintain productivity and employee engagement.  On the whole, employers have found homeworking to be quite effective, and work objectives are still being achieved,  broadly speaking.   But some of the softer issues such as mentoring, training, learning from others in the office, and networking are being lost and as working from home stretches from weeks to months, employers will need to work much harder to manage the long term effects such as mental health levels of their employees. They will need to recognise and address, that this new way of working places greater risk of loneliness or depression and that they need to have strategies in place to combat long term fatigue often caused by working alone. Companies will need to maintain the ‘Corporate Team Network’ and ensure that whilst working from home individuals do not feel isolated and lonely, resulting in de-motivation, which in turn leads to a slow-down in productivity. Firstly organisations will need to acknowledge the potential for this to happen, ensure that line-managers have the ability to recognise it within their teams as well as have the skills to help the individual overcome it – without the stigma often attached to loneliness, de-motivation or depression.

Organised virtual activities during lunchtimes or after-work is a great way of enabling colleagues to feel they still belong to a collective group instead of being an individual silo, giving them something to look forward to and discuss with colleagues to create shared experiences and find memories.  This could be learning a new skill, access to seminars or presentations, demonstrations, or classes in a variety of subjects to help build the team spirit and ensure the corporate identity is maintained as a group.  Where the HR function is devolved line-managers will need to consider how to organise inclusive activities and even allow partners and family members to join to make it a social activity but inclusive to family life.

If we are going to increasingly work from home then work will become embedded in the fabric of home-life and the key is to embrace this new way of working rather than see it as obtrusive, whilst trying to observe the all-important work-life balance.

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Source of data:

  • ONS
  • University College London
  • University of Nottingham