A Tale of Two Epidemics

During Mental Health Awareness week, our recent new hire Scott Baxter shares insights and reflections on mental health in the workplace, the impact of coronavirus and some suggestions on workplace support and coping techniques……

More than a year has passed since the world changed – the Coronavirus pandemic began in March of 2020, and since then it has shaped the lives of everyone, both personally and professionally in ways we could never have imagined.

Barely a day since has gone by where we have not been bombarded with information. Grim milestones – data about infection rates, daily deaths, R numbers and variants. The sheer rate, density, and pace of change of Coronavirus related information has almost desensitised us to the seriousness of the illness.

But there is some good news; the vaccination program continues to steam ahead at pace, and the pandemic looks as though it may finally be slowing down. There is some light at the end of the tunnel. However as we learn more about the long-term physical, and immunological effects of the virus, we are also beginning to uncover the psychological effects of the disease, which extend not just to those who have been infected, but to the healthcare workers who have given their all through the pandemic, as well as the wider public, who have suffered both directly, and indirectly.

The Coronavirus, is a novel and dangerous threat to people and to their loved ones, which has given way to widespread feelings of anxiety and fear of the unknown. To counter the direct effects of infection; all over the world, movement has been restricted, and social contact with others has been almost curbed, but for our smartphones and laptops. Businesses have closed; many for the last time, as customer-facing industries such as hospitality face the economic consequences of national lockdowns. Many have suffered the financial consequences – record high unemployment bringing with it feelings of depression and panic.

Tools and Mindfulness

I recently caught up with Charlie Winton; founder of wellbeing app, OK+ a business-to-business mental health application designed to reduce the effects of mental health issues in the workplace (including anxiety, stress and depression) and support employees with their day-to-day mental health, creating a happier and more productive workforce.

Charlie shared his thoughts on mindfulness. We spoke about how people can break the cycle of negative thoughts and can make use of the app to track changes in mood and feelings over time – allowing people to recognise unhealthy patterns of behaviour, and allowing businesses to find trends and patterns of negative thoughts, linked to events taking place at work.

We discussed how recent studies truly show the mental health effects of the pandemic – in China, 29% of Adults reported feelings of ‘moderate to severe’ anxiety through the duration of their first national lockdown, whilst 36% of Americans described the pandemic as having a ‘serious effect’ on their mental health. Financial and emotional stressors brought about by the pandemic have even manifested themselves in the form of heightened substance abuse. Clearly, whilst necessary, physical distancing has had far-reaching effects on the mental health of the population.

Support in the Workplace

This mental health awareness week, I’ve been reflecting on the consequences the pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns have had for people’s mental health – both generally, and in the context of the workplace. As employers and HR professionals, it is our moral duty and responsibility to ensure that we not only raise awareness of mental health, but that we are able to bring about tangible change addressing it, which positively impacts the lives of employees.

More and more businesses are coming to realise that the only thing which ever proactively ‘gets things done’ are people; and so how people think, feel and do work, really matters. Those same people are at the heart of every decision a business makes – and so it’s only right that those decision makers feel supported and understood by their employers, and that employers are able to adapt to the changing needs of employees both personally and professionally.

Recently, I spoke with Rob MacKean, who alongside working as a virtual FD to a number of early stage and growth businesses is also a trained workplace mental health support facilitator, about mental resilience and control.

Rob had this to say about developing mental resilience in the workplace:

“I agree that the long term effects of the pandemic and associated restrictions will only emerge over time. In my experience two of the hardest things for people to cope with have been the loss of control over many aspects of their lives, and uncertainty about the future. Helping your employees to develop and strengthen their resilience skills will assist them in all aspects of life, as well as in the working environment. Resilience is very much a set of skills that can be learned and not just something that people are born with. Once you have it it’s a secret superpower!

If I had 5 minutes to suggest just one skill to improve mental resilience try this: when you feel out of control or the future is so uncertain you can’t plan ahead, look for the small things that you can control. It might be as simple as:

  • Buying a good headset to make those endless Zoom calls more comfortable, or to block out the domestic noises while working from home
  • Realising you have the power to reject an inconvenient meeting invitation and propose a time back that suits your schedule and not the other person’s, or
  • Finding something that you are pleased with and telling yourself that you did a good job.

There’s always one thing you can change, just one step that you can take. Once you have taken one you might see another and another, and suddenly you are in a better place from where you started.”

Rob Mackean

Coping Mechanisms

It’s often said that “life is not what happens to us, but how we choose to react to what happens to us”. Using healthy coping mechanisms can help us feel in control, calm, and ready to address the root cause of stress and anxiety. Strategies such as deep breathing can help alleviate feelings of anxiety by slowing down the heart rate and activating the calming response in the body.

Exercise is another healthy coping mechanism – releasing endorphins into the bloodstream, whilst using up the adrenaline released by the stress response; clearing heads, and allowing us to feel calmer. Often, writing down feelings can help us problem solve, and tune into our thoughts and feelings.

In these difficult times, it’s important that we are not only open to listening, but open to being open to each other about our feelings, and being ready to take action to support those around us.

Purpose HR can provide help and support to businesses with employee communications, support and wellbeing. For more information please contact the Purpose HR team by emailing info@purposehr.co.uk