Covid-19 lockdown two years later – a second mental illness pandemic looms in the workplace

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After two years of Covid-19 lockdown, as employees transition from remote to office work, the challenge for companies is no longer just to adapt to technological changes and new ways of working, but to guard against a second pandemic of mental illness.

Two years ago, on the morning of Friday March 27, 2020, South Africans woke up to Day 1 of a drastic pandemic-induced lockdown – a “new normal” of social and physical isolation and juggling between the distance work and supervision of home schooling and queuing for basic necessities.

After 730 days of confinement, managing the consequences of Covid-19 is “one of the greatest business challenges of our time”, says Professor Renata Schoeman, head of the MBA Healthcare Leadership program at Stellenbosch University Business School.

“Employees have had to constantly adapt to changing versions of the ‘new normal’, with the mental health risks of isolation and remote working now being replaced by new stressors when returning to work. Creating psychologically safe workplaces must be part of the business recovery strategy after Covid-19,” she said.

The impact of the pandemic and lockdown on mental health was seen almost immediately, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) report[i] that calls to their helpline doubled overnight at the start of the lockdown to 1,200 per day, rising to over 2,200 per day in September 2021.

More than a third (35%) of South African employees experienced high levels of stress-related physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, sleeping and eating problems, palpitations and muscle aches during lockdown.[ii] Half had high levels of worry about the future and 46% were at risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.

South Africa has the lowest Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), a measure of mental wellbeing, of 34 countries in the recently released study [15 March 2021] Mental state of the world report 2021.[iii] South Africa’s MHQ score of 46 was a decrease of 3 percentage points from 2020. The report found a significant link between the drop in MHQ scores from 2019 to 2021 and the strict Covid-19 regulations introduced from 2020 around the world.

The report also showed that South Africa had the highest percentage, 36%, of people in mental difficulty or distress, up 8 percentage points from 2020.

Professor Schoeman said that while the lockdown had a negative impact on employees’ mental health, there had also been positive lifestyle changes and companies should consider how to integrate these into the post-workplace. Covid.

Factors such as isolation and loss on many fronts – loss of income, social support networks, physical and health loss, loss of loved ones as well as the wider social and economic loss in the country – are all factors that have led to the increase in mental health problems, she said. “Working from home and social distancing has also led to losses in social skills, ability to communicate, collaborate, resolve conflicts; and a lost sense of belonging and a sense of belonging to one’s team and workplace.

“On the plus side, people have been able to spend more time with their families, exercise and develop new hobbies, and less time to commute. These are all good mental health habits, which should be encouraged to continue.

“Employees have been able to make their own choices around flexible working hours and focus on production rather than hours spent – and companies need to consider how to incorporate these positives into a return-to-work strategy,” said she declared.

Professor Schoeman recommended a number of approaches for a return-to-work strategy that protects and promotes positive mental health for employees:

Many employees have reassessed their work, life and priorities, as well as their expectations of employers and workplaces. Support for flexible and hybrid work schedules that combine on-site and remote work, and allow employees to balance their personal and family priorities with work, should be integrated into the post-Covid workplace as a way to reduce the stress associated with returning to work.

As people worked from home, managers had to learn to focus on production rather than hours spent in the office as a measure of performance and productivity. This has had a positive impact on employee attitudes at work, and pursuing this approach would positively contribute to employee mental health.

Open communication, transparency, active feedback and listening to complaints and concerns, monitoring for and resolving “hot spots” of interpersonal tension and conflict all contribute to a healthy work environment.

Employees fear for their safety and protection against Covid-19. Employers can reduce this stress by ensuring that hygiene protocols are in place and that the work environment facilitates the personal safety of employees.

“Most importantly, employers must act decisively to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues and ensure that health policies and practices are inclusive and encourage employees to be open about their challenges in a safe and transparent manner. said Professor Schoeman.

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