January 11, 2021
It was in the summer of 2020 that conversations about a second pandemic of mental health issues first started. As we began to see and feel our mental health suffering due to the ongoing impact of COVID19, this idea gained momentum and interest within business sectors. This concept has also been leapt upon by health and wellbeing consultants everywhere as they whip up a storm discussing the inevitable wave of mental health issues threatening to engulf our employees in the future.
This doom-laden prediction is usually balanced out by an optimistic and buoyant accompanying sales pitch for a wellness app or similar that promises to be the panacea for this incoming second pandemic. Boards everywhere have been gathering to discuss their company approach but here’s the simple secret. If you want to avoid a second pandemic, stop talking about one.
This is not to say that we can disregard the sizeable impact that COVID19 continues to have on individual mental health. Constant negative news, social unrest, disruption to daily routines all thrown into the mix alongside home schooling and the complete and absolute loss of all coping strategies is, of course, going to have an intense impact. However, this is not a sign of an impending mental health pandemic. This is a sign of typical human response. It is an ordinary reaction to extraordinary events.
It is important we don’t medicalise the normal
I have worked in mental health for nearly 20 years and specifically with trauma for more than 10 years. I have seen human beings endure and overcome such significant trauma that the majority of the time it is simply incomprehensible. In other words, more than half my career has been spent supporting those who have gone through something horrific, out of their control, which has often cut them off from friends and family. I have witnessed them go through and emerge from that trauma.
What we are going through collectively at the moment is extraordinary. However our reaction is not. Our brains are responding exactly as they are meant to in a traumatic situation. Whilst the Corona-coaster of emotions in undoubtedly unpleasant, it is important we don’t medicalise the normal. Our reactions and emotional responses are not indicative of a problem, nor a symptom of a worse situation to come. Put simply human beings, having no inbuilt schema for such an event, are not equipped to deal with a global pandemic. As such we are feeling our way through, hour by hour, until this passes.
Our employees are feeling unsettled. Job losses are rife. Job security is shaky. Security in the form of share-based pensions has disappeared. It is absolutely ok for employees to not be ok in these circumstances. Companies need to be normalising these experiences, not dramatising them.
Discussing a second pandemic is unhelpful for many reasons. You can prime individuals to experience poor mental health this way. By discussing a second pandemic you are leading individuals to believe there is something wrong with them, as opposed to their experiencing a typical psychological response to a collective trauma. This can lead to individuals believing they are not coping and undermine any success they are having at managing to continue in these exceptionally challenging times. Not only is this bad for individuals but bad for business. Where is the motivation to continue in tough times with no recognition and feeling demonised for being human?
With so much fear and uncertainty, it is common to feel we are failing
When things are already chaotic and unsettling the last thing people need is further disruption to their routine through extended time off work and the assumption that there is something wrong with them for not coping. Yet this is what will occur if we persist in discussing this second pandemic, and refuse to acknowledge how incredibly resilient our employees are for getting to this point.
Instead of focusing on the unknown future and worrying about further impact, companies need to be putting their energy and resource into supporting individuals to get through this pandemic. I have worked in trauma long enough to know that human beings are resilient and the vast majority will return to their typical mental state as the pandemic eases, and long before this is completely over. Mental health fluctuates and a pandemic such as COVID19 merely emphasises the peaks and troughs. We are all experiencing the sharper end of our emotions, finding both joy and despair in smaller than usual moments. But we are all getting through.
The principle point it that it is ok to not be ok right now. The best way to avoid any future backlash for employee mental health is to focus on the current situation and know that the future will settle itself.
With so much fear and uncertainty, it is common to feel we are failing throughout this pandemic. Talk of the next one will only serve to underline this damaging belief. Companies need to support employee mental health by acknowledging the difficulties, normalising the struggles, and celebrating the successes no matter how small. We need to approach our employees with compassion, easing blame and pressure wherever we can as it is simply not helpful. Don’t watch your employees crash and burn and then call it a second pandemic. Support them through this one and watch them emerge more resilient and mentally healthy than ever before.
Image by Robert Fotograf
Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald is an experienced Clinical Psychologist and Health and Wellbeing Consultant. Stephanie is passionate about workplace wellbeing and strongly believes everyone can and should be happy at work. Stephanie supports companies across all sectors to keep their employees happy, healthy, safe and engaged. Follow her on Instagram @workplace_wellbeing