Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis.

Following from our previous blog about the importance of resilient leadership, today’s blog centres on the mental health impact of Covid-19 and the resulting quarantine. We also provide guidance to business leaders and managers on ways to support staff and maintain a healthy workforce through the crisis and beyond.

Challenges to mental health and wellbeing during the current crisis

A cruel irony of the current health crisis is that its impact on our physical health is just the tip of the iceberg. Our mental health is likely to be the biggest and perhaps least reported casualty.

The need to reduce transmission of the virus through social distancing measures has led to the isolation of thousands of people, undermining their ability to access social support exactly when they need it most. In this cruel twist, we have been denied close contact with those friends and family members who constitute a key thread in the fabric of our lives, the people who normally stabilise and support us through difficult times, enabling enhanced coping through adversity.

For some, thinking about the pandemic as a war with an invisible enemy and adopting a ‘fighting mentality’ has been a way of getting through. However, unlike during the Blitz, we are prevented from experiencing the emotional warmth and intimacy that arises when we come together during hard times. And although for some of us our sense of community has been strengthened, through volunteering, helping our neighbours with shopping and dog-walking, the resources we can garner from the sense that we are ‘all in it together’ are diminished by the fact that we can’t actually be together.

The mental health impact of the coronavirus pandemic is wide-ranging. It has affected different groups of people in varying ways across the full age range, including those with existing mental and physical health conditions. We have seen an increase in anxiety disorders as a consequence of fears about catching the virus or losing loved ones. Advice on how to keep ourselves safe has further contributed to heightened stress levels and hypervigilance for us all, and exacerbated fears in those already struggling with mental health issues.

For many of us, experiencing a modest level of anxiety is a normal and adaptive reaction to the current situation. Being sensitive to threat helps us to plan and problem-solve, and to find ways of protecting ourselves and our loved ones.

However, when anxiety takes hold and goes on for a long time without interruption, it becomes chronic. This is when it is likely to contribute to the development of more serious mental health problems that impact a person’s ability to engage in daily activities, such as work, domestic tasks and caring for loved ones.

Whether we experience a decline in our mental health and wellbeing during the current crisis is hugely individual. Our existing ability to cope and current level of wellbeing, our previous experience of threat and adversity, as well as the number of pressures and demands we may be facing currently will all have an impact.

Some factors that can lead to a decline in our mental health during the current crisis include:

  • Exposure to loss, grief and trauma.
  • Changes to working practices, job insecurity, being furloughed or experiencing a loss of income.
  • Alarmist, conflicting or overly negative social media and news reports have been shown through disaster research to increase anxiety and distress.
  • The additional challenges of homeschooling or caring for relatives on top of our usual pressures and demands has tipped many people into heightened stress, adding extra layers of pressure at a time when functioning is already compromised.
  • For those who have never experienced any particular exposure to threat or adversity in their lives, the lack of preparedness, coping skills and confidence to get through has raised stress levels.
  • The perception of fairness, or lack of it, can impact a person’s ability to cope. Research following the SARS and MERS outbreaks showed a negative impact on mental health for those people who lost their job, worked in the health sector or felt they had been coerced.
  • People with pre-existing mental health problems may find their symptoms are more manageable under lockdown, but may be challenged again once contact with the outside world increases.
  • Alternatively, people previously struggling with mental health issues may have found it harder to cope in the absence of the support networks and services that had helped them stay healthy prior to lockdown. For these people, increased access to friends and services may lead to improved wellbeing.

Ultimate Resilience: Maintaining a healthy workforce

Whether we are continuing to work from home or returning to the workplace, our capacity to cope effectively with ongoing anxiety and feelings of insecurity will be influenced by two factors:

  • Our own ability to adapt flexibly to changed routines and practices.
  • Our employers’ ability to put in place procedures and practices that directly address our fears and provide a sense of safety in the workplace.

Managers and leaders who are able to draw on their own resilience skills to manage stress have a greater capacity to build a vision of how things can work in the face of external challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. They draw on emotional and social intelligence skills to support staff through change and challenge, creating and maintaining a mentally healthy workforce.

Making time for individual staff members, to recognise and respond to the particular challenges they are facing, and understand how these factors might impact on their ability to engage with work, will be central to successful coping. Exploring ways of supporting staff through these challenges to find new strengths and coping skills will help them to manage distress, build confidence and grow resilience and wellbeing.

As social connection is so important for our mental health and resilience, providing opportunities for connection between staff, inviting reflection on challenges and celebrating successes will need to feature in any plan to support staff through the current crisis. Considering carefully staff responses to any plans and individual mental health needs will be a hugely important part of this process. This transparency means that even if we are not able to give everyone what they want, they understand how decisions have been made, and feel that they have been fairly treated.

Supporting staff through Covid and beyond: Creating an organisational culture of resilience and wellbeing

For some organisations, creating a culture of resilience may be relatively straight forward, particularly where leaders and managers have existing resilience skills, value staff and are able to engage their emotional intelligence in responding to them.

However, these skills are sadly lacking in many organisations. With restrictions lifting and people returning to work, leaders and staff alike will be facing many new challenges. Making the work environment safe and equitable for those returning will be crucial to ensuring that the organisational values aimed at putting people first are prioritised and communicated to staff. When employees feel that their organisation cares about and appreciates them, they feel a sense of loyalty which makes them more inclined to go the extra mile when needed, to be flexible and adaptable, to support each other and work together to ensure the whole organisation is able to bounce back.

To find out more about how we can support you and your organisation to maintain resilience through this current crisis and beyond, check out the various training and support programmes we offer on our website.