The impact of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health in the workplace

As a society, we have witnessed workers grapple with the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced the mental stress of social isolation, and struggled to achieve the ever-elusive work-life balance while working remotely – all of which has taken an enormous toll on our mental health. But what do we mean exactly, when we talk about mental health?

Mental health goes beyond the absence of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Mental health refers to an overall state of well-being where an individual realises their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life and is able to work productively and contribute to their community. Anyone could suffer from poor mental health at some point in their lives. However, it isn’t easy to identify those struggling with mental health issues as it is a ‘silent killer’ according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Realistically, it could take years before people feel comfortable opening up about their mental health struggles, and by then it could be too late. 

Just because mental health issues are invisible, does not mean they do not exist. Globally, nearly one billion people have mental health issues and it is reported that people with serious mental conditions die up to two decades earlier than those without mental illness.  In Thailand, stress levels among medical personnel increased from 4.8% to 7.9%; while among the general public they increased from 2.7% to 4.2% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to the social stigma and costs that surround the topic of mental disorders, most people who suffer from mental health issues do not receive treatment. Without proper treatment, people are forced to deal with these issues alone, leading them further into a vicious cycle of stress and despair. As co-workers, employers, and leaders, it is imperative for us to appreciate and value people for who they are and to be sensitive to what they are going through daily. No one should struggle with mental health alone. 

Mental health in the workplace

While the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the global mental health crisis, with more than seven in ten young people in Thailand indicating that the pandemic negatively affected their mental health, employers must recognise that mental health issues have always been prevalent at the workplace. These days, people are constantly working at breakneck speeds to meet ever-present deadlines, and some even take leave to do more work. To make matters worse, there is a lack of transparency with regards to communicating these issues in the workplace. For instance, 63% of employees do not feel comfortable revealing to their co-workers that they took time off work because of mental health issues. As a result, there is a lack of awareness about the mental health battle that workers have been facing for years. 

There is no doubt that it is challenging to consistently promote a healthy working environment, especially as we enter the post-pandemic world and companies strive to play catch-up due to the perception of lost time owing to the pandemic. It seems almost counter-intuitive to suggest taking a step back to gain a fresh perspective. Yet, that is exactly what we need to do. By reflecting on the most important things 2020 has taught us, we should realise that amid the uncertainty of this year, our co-workers have weathered the storm with us. They have been challenged, stretched, and tested like never before, and have come out of the pandemic with a newfound resilience and stoicism. Without their collective grit, businesses would not have survived the pandemic. Hence, the bottom line is that people should always come first. This mentality allows us to safeguard the happiness, health, and mental wellbeing of our employees and gives us the ability to pave the way to build a better future of work. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do. A recent study led by WHO estimated that for every $ 1 invested in treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. 

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health, especially if it’s something that you’ve not experienced before. Initially, there will always be questions and awkward pauses, but this is all part and parcel of learning how to deal with a phenomenon that affects millions of people worldwide. The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone and that chances are, as you open up, you will find more people that have experienced the same thing as you have. All you need to do is to take that first leap of faith and trust that there will be people that will support you throughout your mental health journey. If you’ve not personally experienced mental health issues, try educating yourself on the topic, so that you will be better equipped to help the people around you in the future. 
  • Always reach out when you need support. Apart from having a good support system at home, be honest and transparent with your boss and the people you work with. At 3M, employees are encouraged to regularly communicate their preferences for how they prefer to work through the FlexAbility programme which encourages supervisors to be supportive and helpful by trying to remove any obstacles employees may face at work. It is not a one-size-fits-all programme, rather, it is customized based on an employee’s role and personal circumstances. Open communication facilitates better relationships and is more likely to result in a better workflow. 
  • Be inspired and try new coping strategies – whether it’s a fitness activity that you’ve always wanted to try out or developing a habit for practicing mindfulness. Take advantage of the community around you. Engage and connect with others so you can be inspired by new ideas on how to cope with stress. For instance, to help employees navigate the post-pandemic world, 3M held a Global Virtual Well-being Fair to allow employees to gain access to resources that would help their physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. 
  • Be aware of the resources that are available to you. Some companies like 3M offer resources such as the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which allows employees to be properly supported throughout their careers. The EAP offers a wide range of services, whether that is telecounselling or just asking for advice on how to handle life as a working parent. The goal of these resources is to allow employees to receive help in all aspects of their life when needed.

All in all, achieving good mental health should be thought of as a constant work in progress – a journey, instead of a fixed endpoint. With the right resources, working environment, and support, we can move towards creating a workplace that is both inclusive and collaborative. In doing so, we are making a conscious effort to solve problems together in the face of adversity. Mental health affects us all and it is time to face the music if we want to be responsible, caring, and empathetic leaders in the 21st century.


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