SARAH RICE: Taking on the next pandemic: mental distress

Taking on the next pandemic: mental distress

We must look at how we can help co-workers to be resilient and stay engaged in these extraordinary times.


Mental health has been identified as the biggest threat of 2021 as the pandemic’s effect continues to weigh on South Africans. This is reflected in data released by the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, which shows a 267% increase in calls to its hotline to 2,200 per day, from 600 prior to lockdown. And this does not include email, text and social media outreach messages.

After a gruelling 18 months of Covid-19, lockdowns, remote work and increased anxiety, many companies have seen a drop in employee satisfaction and higher rates of depression, anxiety and burnout. As October marks Mental Health Awareness month, this is a good time to pause and check on how best businesses can support employees in their personal lives as well as at work.

The globe is moving further into the digital economy, and it’s becoming clear that technology is not the most important factor when it comes to digital transformation. Rather, people are. To be successful, businesses need to ensure their employees are supported to be resilient and to feel valued, especially in the face of adversity.

This is because companies that have satisfied employees have better relationships with customers and lower turnover rates —— which in turn leads to higher productivity and better business outcomes. But this is the opposite situation to what most people are currently experiencing.


Technology a source of connection and disconnection 

In 2020, companies had to rapidly pivot their operations to survive and technology adoption soared, with many people having to work from home. By some measures productivity increased, with 55% of workers saying their colleagues maintained or increased productivity levels during lockdown.

However, what we’re learning now is that this came at a tremendous cost. Isolation and social distancing cut many people off from connection and support. The threat of job and income loss fuelled anxiety, and there is also an unacknowledged burden of grief as many mourn the loss of loved ones, livelihoods, leaders and role models.

We can’t change what happened. We can’t take away what workers have endured and will still endure. But it is time now to look at how we can support coworkers to be resilient and stay engaged during these extraordinary times. This is because although work is a source of identity and pride for many, it can also be a source of comfort as often we spend more time with colleagues and team members than with our family and friends.


Breaking mental health stigma

While mental health issues have always been around, the pandemic has changed the way many think about health. There is less stigma around admitting to depression and anxiety, going to therapy, and needing support. In turn, that nudges us towards connection and community.

At the same time, I have found that women are often more comfortable in asking for support and sharing their emotions with their team. But we still have more work to do as a culture to accept and support men’s emotions. This is especially as men are almost four times more likely to die from suicide. Hopefully, as more men speak out about their struggles this will start to change. When they do, leaders and team mates also need to be ready to support male colleagues, despite cultural conditioning that men should not show vulnerability.

Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso shows how this can look in practice — even in a testosterone-charged environment such as professional sports. The title character, Ted, is a coach who puts his people ahead of results — much to the scepticism and outright disbelief of people around him. Yet his example starts to catalyse changes in his team, as the players begin to support one another and build each other up. Finally, in season two, when the team witnesses their star striker being verbally assaulted by his father, the team’s captain steps forward to comfort him as he cries.

Normalising male emotion positively affects the entire team as people better understand and accept the pressures an individual member experiences. Although men might not be ready to share their own emotions, they do need to be brave enough to accept others’ emotions and support them through it.


Empowering employees to set boundaries

Depression, anxiety, grief and burnout are encountered on an individual level — but managing them often requires a supportive community. That includes work teams and safe environments where self-care and healthy boundaries are not only permitted, but also normalised.

Some organisations have mandated policies designed to protect workers from burnout, such as banning work emails after 6pm. While this helps enforce boundaries around overwork and sends a message around expectations, it’s not a policy that works for all businesses, especially those operating in multiple time zones. It is also vital to rather empower people to speak up about their individual expectations and boundaries — instead of mandating that for them.

That’s because mental health is so individual. It is about how one feels comfortable working and living. We must ensure that people feel safe enough at work to advocate for themselves and speak up for their concerns. That starts with them being able to talk about what they need.


Building a community of support

For managers, it is essential to open the dialogue about team dynamics and business needs so that we set proper expectations and support colleagues to speak up about what they’re experiencing. If someone isn’t coping, it is crucial to start with a conversation. Ask what’s happening, what they need, and see where the business can offer support. The key is to support without taking over.

Creating this supportive culture has always required conscious effort, and that is truer than ever in the age of remote work. This might look like asking new hires to meet team members in real life because that makes it easier to build a supportive relationship. It can also include regular team check-ins and dedicated Slack channels that help to scan the overall team temperature.

As the country continues to battle the pandemic, with reports of an imminent fourth wave, it is now more important than ever for businesses to play their role in minimising the impact of mental health and the only way this is done is by creating a business culture that normalises emotions and encourages open communication.


A related article also appeared in:

Business Day on Oct 14, 2021