Mental Health in the Post Covid Workplace Requires Collective Effort

On May 18, 2021

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Isn’t this the perfect opportunity to get us thinking about ways we can sharpen our awareness on the importance of mental health?

This Mental Health Awareness Month is a great reminder of the extent to which we can all up our game to advocate for more effort, focus, investment into making it become a ‘must have’ right for everyone.

In theory and as stated by UN’s Sustainable Development Goal nr 3 (SD nr 3):

"ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages”

is a right for every human being. Putting this into the context of mental well-being at and outside the workplace, I firmly believe that it is our responsibility turning this statement into a reality from ‘wherever we sit’. This starts with looking after our own mental well-being first and foremost before we can help anybody else or the world with it.

Focusing on a defining clear mental health agenda for the near and long-term the future, has become an even more pressing priority in the midst and aftermath of the global Covid 19 pandemic, which has further exacerbated economic and psychosocial issues related to mental health across the world.

For people of all ages and backgrounds, lives have been shaken up or at least changed considerably as a result of this pandemic. At this stage billions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, either by having fallen ill from it or by having lost somebody to it or dealt with the sheer worry and sense of insecurity relating to the situation. All this is having a further impact on people’s mental health.

To put this into perspective, let me cite a statistic issued recently by the WHO (2020):

"Close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide.”

This pandemic made it blatantly clear that we are all potentially vulnerable to falling prey to mental health concerns. Mental health issues are not something ‘out there’ happening to others, nor are they ‘just ‘something we read about or may know about because a relative, a friend or a colleague suffers from it. It poses a real threat for each and every one of us.

It does so in particular during these times of unprecedented and unexpected change, which we are experiencing and which has created a permanent shift in the way we are supposed to work and function as human beings. The feeling of isolation and loneliness caused by the social distancing, forced upon us practically overnight, during the pandemic for example, coupled with the insecurity and fear of the ‘unknown’ alongside an overflow of ongoing negative social media and other news has affected all areas of our usual existence: Work, family & social life, education, finances, leisure time. All this offers a recipe for high levels of worry, rumination and stress.

An example in daily life of this is the volume of increase in stress and anxiety levels my coaching clients have been experiencing over the past 12 months. Interestingly many had ever suffered from any previous mental health concerns nor would describe themselves as ‘worry prone’ type or pessimistic type individuals (characteristics which correlate with a propensity to lower stress tolerance).

However, an array of stress-inducing type questions, which I discovered many of my coaching clients were dealing with, day in day out led to excessive worrying and rumination (a type of cognitive processing whereby we overthink negative aspects of a situation or event over and over again), which contributed to increased levels of anxiety and depression.

Here are some examples of the most frequently shared “worry” type questions triggered in the context of the pandemic here:

Will I be able to keep my job? How will I pay my bills and look after my family without a job? Will my business survive? Will my kids be ok with home schooling- how can I work effectively with them around all day? How will I manage to balance my high- pressure work from home alongside my family duties? Will my relationship survive this? How will I be able to motivate my team members when they are locked down at home? Will they start looking for another job?

If we think about awareness relating to mental health, it needs to start with ourselves before we can think of supporting others or the workplace. Becoming aware of our tendency to overthink, ‘over-worry’ or ‘over ruminate’ and the extent to which this can become unhelpful, is the first step to adopting more conscious ways of reducing this unhealthy tendency for the benefit of our own mental well-being.

The point here is, that this pandemic exposed an important truth, namely that the line between feeling mentally well and mentally unwell is a fine one and that exposure to mental health risks is a possible reality for all of us.

According to the WHO (2020) and the World Federation for Mental Health (2020), globally more than 300 million people suffer from depression and more than 260 million are living with anxiety disorders. Many live with both and although depression and anxiety disorders are considered ‘common mental disorders’ they can have an adverse impact on our quality of life and ability to work, and to work productively. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. And yet, believe it or not, mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health. Countries spend on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health.

Putting this back into the context of mental well-being at the workplace, I believe that it is our responsibility to turn sustainable mental well-being into a reality from ‘wherever we sit’. As previously stated it starts with looking after our own mental well-being first and foremost before we can help anybody else.

Investing time, effort and thought into mental health prevention as well as support for existing conditions is not a ‘nice to have but a ‘must have’, regardless of the role we are operating from be it individual, parent, colleague, people manager, employer, policy, government or society representative.

Covid-19 vaccination programmes might be on their way in some parts of the world, which is a good thing (finally some light at the end of the tunnel for some…) however they will not ‘erase’ all the ‘collateral damage’ this pandemic has brought with it, especially not when it comes to mental health at and outside the workplace.

The world has shifted ‘overnight’ to something different and so has the workplace. For it to become seriously conducive to supporting the mental well-being of employees, it needs to be a sustainable psychological safe workplace, one that is fulfilling, inclusive, empathic, engaged. There is a lot of work ahead of us, such as shaping the culture of organisations to become psychologically safe, allowing employees to be themselves and openly admit and discuss mental health issues for example. Building a truly inclusive mindset in the organisation means building matching leadership capabilities and a strategy going alongside. To achieve all of this we can’t simply hope to ‘carry on’ the way we did before the pandemic. As we are trying to figure out what this ’new ‘world is supposed to look like (at work and play) for mental health to thrive, this is the start of a co-creative journey towards ‘rebuilding’ it. It will require collective effort from all of us and since “Rome was not built in a day” we can feel reassured that we will get there eventually and at the right time.