For two years we’ve been subjected to fear, anxiety, isolation, powerlessness which all contributed to a crisis of “collective trauma,” and being on “edge.’
To find out how bad things are, and what business leaders and people can do to cope with the unrelenting challenges brought on by the pandemic, I spoke with with Paula Allen, Global Leader and SVP, Research and Total Wellbeing at LifeWorks—a world leader in providing digital and in-person solutions that support the total wellbeing of individuals and employees.
It took a deadly virus outbreak to wake up employers to look after the mental health and emotional wellbeing of their people. Covid-19, followed by the Delta variant, and now the sudden surge of Omicron, have left people feeling lost and defeated. It’s hard to remain positive and optimistic when public schools, colleges, businesses, restaurants, and live events shut down. Travel plans are scrapped as airlines cancel flights. Fear of catching and spreading the disease makes many people despondent and withdraw from society.
Allen says that according to LifeWorks’ statistics, there has been a doubling of the proportion of the population that is at high risk for mental health issues – from 14 per cent to 34 per cent. With Omicron, she says, “I think we’re going to continue to feel the edge that we’ve been feeling,” and “Those people who do have mental health support needs, their needs are fairly complex – more so than before.”
Since most humans possess an innate sense of optimism, when we find that things improve and see a light at the end of the tunnel, then realize it’s another train coming at us, we feel frustrated and powerless. The roller coaster rides of ups and downs took a toll on the mental health of the global population.
Human beings are social creatures and need other people. Interactions with people and maintaining tight relationships inspires and makes us feel good. There is a tendency when we’re under pressure and overly stressed to pull back and isolate ourselves from the outside world. This knee jerk reaction is not healthy. Instead, you need a social support system, connect with people and feel part of something.
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Business leadership can play a large important part in supporting their employees’ mental health. This means putting a variety of wellbeing programs in place, ensuring consistent communication about what is available to employees and providing training for managers on how to spot signs of mental distress within their teams. Another important component of this is flexibility.
LifeWorks’ mental health index tracks how people are faring across the world. Here are some of the highlights:
- Nearly one-fifth of working Americans report that their working life has worsened since the start of the pandemic
- 17% of Americans indicate that their working life has worsened compared to before the pandemic; the mental health of this group is nearly 11 points below the national average.
- Americans working from home are 75 percent more likely than those working at the worksite to report an improvement in their working lives compared to before the pandemic.
- 16% of Americans report that their personal life has worsened compared to before the pandemic; the mental health of this group is nearly 15 points below the national average.
- Differences in mental health scores between those with and without emergency savings have been reported since the launch of the Index in April 2020. Nearly two years later, individuals without emergency savings have a mental health score (-21.8) more than 18 points below the overall group (-3.7) and more than 20 points below those with emergency savings (0.9).
- For the 20th consecutive month, full-time post-secondary students have the lowest mental health score (-18.8) by a significant margin
What Leadership Needs To Do Now
Change comes from the top. Fortunately, we’ve started to see C-suite executives taking action and communicating the importance of mental health and wellbeing, and demonstrating empathy. That helps people feel valued, understood and less isolated in their struggles.
Managers need to acknowledge that people have different situations to deal with, as everyone is on their own personal journey. Some staff members may need a lot of help, others, not so much. Everyone can benefit from some form of guidance or support.
Supervisors can’t assume someone has a challenge. They need to politely, on an individual basis, inquire how they’re doing and how the company can help. Frequent, regular micro surveys may help gain an understanding of the mood of people and if it’s getting better or worsening.
It’s not reasonable to presume managers intuitively know how to deal with these serious matters. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon leadership to train the managers and teach them how to express empathy. It may make sense to bring in outside experts, especially if there is a sense that morale is dropping and the rate of employee attrition is increasing at an alarming rate.
Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers didn’t talk about mental health issues, career burnout, feeling of depression and existential crises. In the past there was a stigma attached to these feelings. With this in mind, it takes time for people to feel comfortable admitting that they need help.
Management should support a sense of belonging, and accept people for who they are, and engage them respectfully. Show recognition so workers feel that their efforts matter and are appreciated. Create a psychologically safe culture in which no one is felt shamed for sharing their ideas or berated over making a minor mishap. Deploy an employee assistance program that offers confidential mental health and holistic support for employees and their families.
What You Can Do Right Now
We always talk about the importance of our physical health. We all agree that it’s important to eat healthily, exercise, avoid excesses such as drinking too much, smoking or indulging in illicit drugs. You need to adopt this mindset for your mental health.
By showing gratitude and recognizing others can help both you and the other person. It actually rewires your brain in a way that helps your own resilience. It’s hard to manage the unrelenting stress and avoid burnout all by yourself. It is restorative to have relationships. It’s also important to keep things in perspective.
Our challenge is that the virus outbreak cut us off from society. The amount of outside activities were diminished. To compensate for what we lost, you need to consciously plan something for their day that gives a sense of accomplishment. Find a hobby, sport or activity that makes you feel good. Get in touch with people you haven’t spoken with for a while. Join online events to extend your network and meet new people. Stay away from depressing books, music and toxic people. Embark upon new challenges that will get you up and out of bed in the morning. If you need help, don’t worry about any stigmas. Tell people how you feel and seek out professional help.
Don’t deny what you are feeling and what you’re going through. The best medicine is other people. There’s no reason to go it alone. Be realistic about the world around you, and don’t worry too much about long term goals, and focus on the here and now.
Allen contends that there will be long-term implications of the pandemic on our mental health. Even if we get to a place where the physical aspect of the pandemic is under control, many people will continue struggling with their mental health for years and perhaps decades to come, as a result of Covid-19.
The decline in our collective mental health – including increased isolation, anxiety and depression – is troubling, but with the help of employers and taking personal control over your life, you can overcome the barriers and thrive.