Originally published on BRINK news on April 12, 2020.
The extreme measures put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus have transformed the workplace as never before. Entire workforces now have to work from home, people who had work to do one day have been suddenly furloughed, with nothing to do the next, and entire industries have been ground to a halt.
The impact of this on the mental health of the workforce is not to be underestimated. While we naturally grapple with the technicalities of getting to grips with the new ways of working now necessitated, it’s important that we don’t overlook the psychological impact this is having on employees and managers, or fail to put measures in place to help them cope.
According to psychological research, there are four elements that are essential to building the resilience needed to stay healthy under pressure. Known as the 4Cs, these are our need for positive interaction with others (community), wanting to feel part of something important (commitment), the chance to stretch ourselves without feeling overwhelmed (challenge), and the need to have a sense of control over our daily lives (control).
With coronavirus forcing governments to assume control over where people work, how they socialize and even when they can and can’t leave their house, our psychological need for control is being severely compromised.
Employers can give back some sense of control by trying not to be too overbearing, for example, by allowing parents now also faced with the challenge of home schooling to flex their hours so they can continue to work while meeting this additional pressure however humanly possible. They can also remind people of the benefits of structuring their day for retaining a sense of control over how they organize their work and what time they eat or exercise each day.
Even those people who have been furloughed will gain much from retaining a sense of structure over their day. These individuals will be reeling from having had the work they were striving to achieve and their connections with workplace colleagues suddenly severed and could easily feel their life is out of control and suddenly lacking purpose.
Those who relished working hard will benefit from continuing to get up and “work” at something, be this a new skill that might benefit their career in future, a charity project or mastering a musical instrument or language they always wanted to learn.
Everyone should be encouraged to allow time for the things that make us happy, such as actually talking to friends and family, instead of just sending texts, connecting with the outside world where possible, eating healthy food, exercising and getting enough rest. Happiness research found that helping others is the best way of fighting loneliness.
Different personalities will respond to the challenge of distancing themselves from others and having to work apart from colleagues in different ways.
Introverted personality types and those used to home-working might actually welcome the opportunities this provides to live a healthier lifestyle, in terms of being able to prepare healthier food at home and take exercise during the day. Extroverted personality types, who need to bounce ideas off others for their inspiration, might struggle and should be encouraged to “meet” colleagues for “virtual coffees,” and use social networking sites to retain social connections.
Digital workplace well-being apps can also help individuals to focus on their social well-being in conjunction with other health goals. For example, by allowing teams to set shared well-being goals, such as going for a daily walk or taking part in a group dance or mindfulness workshop at the same time to boost social as well as physical health.
Managers also need to keep checking in with people and mental health pathways created to support those struggling with loneliness, anxiety, domestic violence or even suicidal thoughts. It’s not enough to have an Employee Assistance Program service offering free counseling sessions or kind and empathetic managers if empathy isn’t combined with the action of directing those exhibiting signs of distress to the right resources.
One of the most powerful ways to protect people’s mental health at the current time is to help them to view the coronavirus threat as something they can personally help to combat, instead of allowing them to sink into a defeatist attitude.
Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl was able to survive the most horrible and dehumanizing of experiences because of his observation that the main difference between those who survived and those who didn’t was a sense of purpose. Already a trained psychiatrist before his incarceration, he started scribbling his thoughts on the importance of meaning on bits of paper and visualizing the book he would write one day.
The resulting book, Man’s Search for Meaning, led to a new school of psychotherapy highlighting the importance of meaning for sustaining good mental health, in even the most despairing situations. It’s why people who have lost a loved one set up a charity in their name to give meaning to tragedy and why thousands of people are volunteering to cook meals for exhausted health care workers, deliver medicine to older people having to stay indoors and even offering to take part in essential clinical trials.
The fundamental desire we have to be connected to something bigger than ourselves is why governments have shifted their coronavirus communications from telling people what to do to telling them why doing this will protect others. It works because, in times of crisis more than anything else, our natural desire to help comes through.
Employers who can connect their people to a sense of purpose and invite them to rise to the challenge will not only give them a sense of direction that will protect their mental health, but also will allow them to emerge stronger from the crisis as a result.