Depression, loneliness, fear: the effects of COVID-19 on mental health are still rippling out into the workforce, writes OSH research adviser Christopher Davis, effacing the boundaries between work and personal life. But OSH professionals can help improve resilience.
There is irony in how much the global working landscape has shifted with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic because large numbers of its workforce have been rendered immobile by it. Some are not working, others are working from home, many will be speculating on how they might fit into a post-virus landscape.
While some organisations have moved quickly to adopt new measures that protect their workers, the future for many others remains undecided. New working parameters are slowly being devised, but how might workers – either those working remotely, those redeployed in unfamiliar roles, or those furloughed – cope mentally with both the uncertainty and the return to work?
General health and wellbeing
A range of psychological impacts have been caused by the pandemic, ranging from anxiety and reduced sleep to combinations of depression, loneliness, stress, fear and excitement. These disruptive and conflicting responses are likely to have disorientating effects. For some, the freedom to work from home or to be furloughed from work may naturally be tempered by the lack of long-term job security, or the more immediate fear of infection.
Many have felt the profile of their roles alter overnight. This has meant a sudden shift towards home-working for some, while others have experienced a drastic, or total, fall-off in workload. In either case, the scale of the shift may have impacted many workers’ sense of self and wellbeing.
The distinct character of our ‘at-work’ role contributes to what psychologist Patricia Linville calls our ‘self-complexity’ – the degree to which we are individuals made up of numerous independent aspects (see Resources). There are distinct elements that contribute to our sense of self: we are workers, spouses, liberals, introverts, optimists and so on. For Patricia, the greater the number of independent aspects we have, the greater the extent of our self-complexity. This, she says, can act as a buffer against depression.
Aside from other obvious aspects that have been affected due to COVID-19 restrictions (recreational or social activities, for example), the removal of the ‘at-work’ aspect not only means a truncated sense of self, but also increases our vulnerability to adverse psychological impacts.
With little or no preparation, many have found themselves carrying out their private, work, and social lives all in the same domestic setting. Some are perhaps ill-equipped to manage the distinct challenges this poses to their sense of self and wellbeing.
Guidance can be taken from sectors in which the wellbeing of workers is often dependent on their ability to navigate blurred professional and personal boundaries.
For example, the IOSH Seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing research shows that maritime organisations are encouraged to protect seafarers’ mental health by acknowledging their need for differentiated social and recreational activities (see Resources). In such unique working environments, seafarers require dedicated spaces for both collective and solitary downtime. In many ways, remote workers are no different.
There are benefits in finding or maintaining a sense of purpose – be it actively taking care of ourselves, others or our careers. Strategies range from something as modest as establishing healthy daily routines or socialising online to an ambitious project such as working towards a qualification. The perceived importance of the project is secondary to the sense of purpose it offers.
Clocking in: A smoother transition
In spite of the connectedness that many organisations have managed to maintain due to technological resources, a vital factor in the smooth transition back into the workplace will be the way in which the social landscapes of workplaces are re-established, and, in turn, the extent to which workers are able to regain any sense of belonging that has diminished.
The onus will thus fall upon organisations to ensure that, against the backdrop of the upheaval, the social dimension of work is accounted for in return to work planning. This is likely to require a combination of informal aspects (such as general care and concern for workers) and formal structures (such as good communication systems and advocacy support) which aim at re-embedding workers sensitively back into the workplace.
To prepare for the issues that workers could face as they return to normal (or a ‘new normal’), it will be important for organisations to examine the mental health toolkits they already possess – and to modify and refresh them where necessary. As suggested in IOSH’s Benchmarking questions on mental health first aid in the workplace (see Resources), a tool designed to help organisations assess preventative mental health controls, ‘the fluid nature of stressors in the workplace means that organisations need to develop a suite of controls (decisions and arrangements) that can be applied as needed.’
More information on returning to work after COVID-19 can be found in the return to work campaign section of the IOSH website.
Personal return to work
Research suggests that returning to work after COVID-19-enforced absence does not cause high levels of psychiatric symptoms. However, the recommencement of work, or the return to the workplace, will be daunting for some. Lengthy absence from ‘normal’ working practices is likely to present certain barriers to a smooth and swift transition. There will also be added complexity in the sense that the concept of a ‘return’ may itself be grey.
An IOSH report on returning to work after mental disorders (see Resources) suggests that those who actively engage with the prospect of a return during a hiatus are better equipped to handle the shift when it happens. Short-term absentees ‘seemed to engage more in recovery-enhancing behaviour, for example keeping a daily structure and continuing to be active. Workers on long-term sick leave generally seemed to be more reactive as opposed to proactive.’
Evidence suggests that returning workers often fare better when they take a degree of ownership over their reintegration. Occupational therapists encourage absent workers to find purpose and value in their life away from work. This can create positive ripple effects.
Practitioners also suggested workers should be encouraged to explore their motivations to work and to identify what they find energising about their role.
Those who reflect on their role while away from work, who remain active, and who re-establish healthy routines ahead of a resumption benefit upon their return.
Returning to work: support mechanisms for employees
Organisational return to work
Organisations will have to be mindful of the mental strain that the pandemic may have had, and continue to have, on workforces. Return-to-work practices used successfully in different contexts might prove useful. Individuals returning from periods of chronic illness, for example, cope better when personalised, graduated and well-communicated approaches are taken. While organisations are unlikely to have the resources to meet the personal needs of so many returning workers, an ongoing openness to these principles will be beneficial.
This may require the nurturing of a supportive workplace culture (see A smoother transition).
The COVID-19 pandemic has already had various impacts on the world of work. A lengthy period of adjustment seems likely. Less clear are the finer details of that adjustment. The uncertainty makes it challenging for organisations and workforces to act with conviction, but the benefits of forward-planning are clear. In every sense, we are anxious to see what comes next.