How to mitigate the mental health impact of Covid-19

February 19, 2021
“I struggle with not having friends around.”
“Physical distancing is tough because I can’t have that connection that helps me so much.”
“I have been highly anxious and I am having very intense feelings of outrage at work.”

These powerful testimonials reflect that due to the uncertainties of the outbreak and the economic downturn fear, the stress levels are rising. The "honeymoon" phase is long over.

The pandemic threatens the global mental health, people losing contact with each other, losing loved ones, losing jobs, losing income, losing out on life and sometimes losing nearly all grip on life.

2021 probably will be the continuation of 2020 which means companies will be pushed even more to combat the psychological impact of COVID-19. Don’t ignore the “silent suffering” of the employees, because the longer you wait the worse it will get, and the psychological ramifications can be long-lasting even after the epidemic has ended. Only by strengthening the psychological defence can help to fight this long-drawn battle and secure success for the future.

“I feel frozen.”

What are the mental effects?

Isolation, loss of income, bereavement and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. However, loneliness and isolation are probably the two main issues. According to The Mental Health Foundation’s research in Britain shows that the first negative emotions like anxiety, stress and panic had declined after a while however the feelings of loneliness and isolation had remained.

94% of US and UK workers feel stressed at work, with almost a third saying that their stress levels are high to unsustainably high. A survey by Qualtrics in April 2020 found that 44.4% of newly remote workers said their mental health had declined since the outbreak of the pandemic. Results from the Future Consumer Index echo these findings: 83% of respondents cited a decline in productivity due to working from home.

It is also significant to mention that Boomers and people age 45 and above reported higher perceived mental resilience and appeared to be coping better than Millennials. Which is an interesting observation since during the 2002-04 SARS outbreak social disengagement, mental stress and anxiety took a big toll on the older people in Asia.

The unknown and the unpredictability of the pandemic makes it even more difficult to be more mental health resilient. Not to mention the frequent exposure to social media/news concerning COVID-19 which makes it even harder to cope with our feelings.

“It feels like the year that wasn’t.”

How to help?

Employers to retain the best and brightest talent have to increase their effort to embed mental wellness support to reinforce employees’ resilience in the post-pandemic world. It is important to take note that help on the basis of personal preferences resonates the most in creating mental resilience: what works for one colleague with mindfulness exercises is not necessarily helping other team members. Having a menu in place that allows for diversity in needs is critical.

1. Expansion of health benefits

It’s time to take a fresh look at your benefits and rewards and adjust according to employee preference!

Throughout 2020, many employers realised the necessity to update their benefits amid and ensure support for individuals who require them, or who are at greatest risk of suffering poor mental health in future.

Employee benefits could include an ever-widening range of childcare enhancements, physical wellness, wealth, home office stipends, reimbursements, mental health counselling, online therapy, telemedicine or just providing the option of flexibility. At the end it all depends on what the critical areas are and where greater support is needed.

Starbucks made some adjustments for 2020 to fight the stigma associated with mental health. As an initiative a training program called Starbucks Mental Health Fundamentals have been formed to provide holistic mental health programs and to help the staff to recognize and respond to signs of mental health.

One thing is for sure, expect to carry over these employer-provided help even in the post-shutdown world.

2. Practice mindfulness

Encourage your employees and offer ample opportunities to call up mindfulness in any moment and to take short mental breaks to recharge.

Before beginning your workday, meditate or if you have limited time take a minute with your eyes closed, practicing a few mindfulness techniques, like breathing mindfully or reflecting on your thoughts. Also, as a good day starter writing a daily journal could be a very beneficial release technique.

At various points during the day, stretch your body or implement a 3 minutes breathing exercise by practicing deep exhalation and inhalation exercises. For more conventional options take 5 to10 minutes coffee, tea or a simple walk break every two hours.

3. Exercise sessions

With the pandemic, employee physical well-being has become more important than ever.

As a company consider joining your forces with any fitness and wellness membership providers to offer your employees greater physical wellness benefits. This way participants will have access to digital workouts online and live streaming exercise events, including fitness, yoga, Pilates, cardio, strength and toning video contents.

For smaller firms recommend organising wellness clubs based on interests where employees will motivate each other with progress milestones.

4. Reorganization of the physical workspace

So, there is the big question: what is an office for now? The office is not dead just the role of it changed. The office is more and more becoming a clubhouse and the place to form social bonds, maintain corporate culture, host clients, create creative and innovative ideas. Visiting the office will be a personal choice, whether your employees will feel confident about the safety of their work environment.

Therefore, the hygiene considerations have to be top-notch, companies should consider enhanced cleaning techniques, more distancing and more access to outdoor space. New smart and touch-free technologies are emerging to help you prevent potential disease transmission for example by using sensors to ensure physical distancing in the congested areas like elevators.

Additionally, since most of the employees work from home, the reduced office space allows you to reconsider a new long term office layout. Take away dedicated desks and arrange multiple game corner setups.

5. Talk and bonding sessions

As a company it’s so important to constantly reassure your employees that they can get help and they have your full support and trust

As I have previously stated in our article, it’s so significant to build a strong company culture and one of the best ways to develop a culture and boost morale is through team bonding activities. Social interactions play a big role to diminish the distance between each other, it helps to cultivate a sense of community to combat loneliness and isolation.

Team building practices might be a challenge now however these experiences will help your employees get through each day, your team will be more connected, happier and work more effectively together. There are many options for bringing people together online most of them easily facilitated through a video conferencing tool.

Here are some tips to start you off:

  • Challenge your members to a game night
  • Hold a monthly morning coffee/tea talk
  • Hold virtual night outs
  • Throw a virtual potluck party
  • Celebrate birthdays with party bingo
  • Host a regular AMA (ask me anything)

For more than a year we are in survival mode and being constantly challenged mentally, personally and societally. In the long run, we wanted to achieve way too much last year, the expectations were so high from every angle that by now we all feel drained and exhausted.

In this contemporary trauma paradigm, the challenges have multiplied however it’s vital to maintain hope. Things will get better, we just don’t know when, be persistent and practice hope through patience. Focus on the things you still CAN influence.