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Protecting our mental health from Covid-19

By Professor Roger Gill, April 2021

It’s been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic began. In the UK we have lived through three long national lockdowns, spent countless hours working from our kitchen tables and makeshift desks while home-schooling our children, and without the usual support from friends, family and colleagues due to ongoing social distancing.

In the face of such unprecedented living and working conditions, it’s hardly surprising that the need to protect and preserve people’s mental health and wellbeing has become a priority for those in charge of our organisations, services and governments.

But where to begin? A new study I have conducted in partnership with Professor Matt Grawitch and colleagues at Saint Louis University in Missouri may provide leaders with the first steps.

Impact of Covid-19

Together, we set out to better understand the impact of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions on mental health and wellbeing. By surveying people living and working across the UK, mainland Europe and North America throughout June 2020, we were able to explore how various demographic factors, individual differences and leadership experiences influenced how people perceived Covid-19 to be impacting on their lives, and how these perceptions compared to the actual impact the pandemic was having.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our study found that individuals who showed and reported high levels of resilience and adaptivity to the ongoing lockdown, as well as those who received effective leadership from their employers in tackling the challenges of remote working, were more able to positively engage with their work, and they continued to do so.

However, our study also delivered some unexpected results, which we believe provide key lessons for leaders in helping to manage the mental health and wellbeing of those they are responsible for.

While demographic factors such as being employed as an essential worker or being responsible for looking after dependent children (all commonly understood to be the most stressful and difficult circumstances to be in during lockdown) certainly influenced how lockdown restrictions impacted on the respondents’ lives, our study found no evidence to suggest that these factors had any negative impact on the mental health or wellbeing of those people we surveyed.

Positive outcomes

In fact, these factors actually led to better wellbeing outcomes.

It’s true that many workers were met with new demands on their time during lockdown: needing to learn new technologies in order to effectively work from home, for example, or learning to navigate makeshift and hastily implemented working procedures. And many also faced new challenges as they lost out on essential financial resources. However, the shift to remote working also created a series of trade-offs for most people that led to positive outcomes. Those who previously faced lengthy commutes found they benefited from achieving a better work-life balance – not to mention the reduction in their expenses. For many of those working part-time hours on zero-hour contracts, faced with insecure work hours or even furlough, we observed that the ability to qualify for financial support helped to ease the burden and make life more manageable.

But above all, the key to being able to not just to survive the challenges posed by lockdown measures, but to thrive under them, was resilience. Our study holds a vitally important finding – that resilience is more than merely a personality trait. With the right tools and experiences, resilience can be built. For example, the participants who had been better prepared for long-term remote working by already having flexible work arrangements in place prior to lockdown were found to fare better than others, regardless of personal circumstances.

It is this discovery that we believe provides vital lessons for individuals, employers and governments in protecting people’s mental health and wellbeing in the event of future pandemics and lockdown scenarios, and indeed other kinds of crisis or emergency.

For individuals

It’s important to understand where the pressure points and stress factors appear in their lives and the root causes of them. By increasing their personal resources – whether time, energy or money – they can help alleviate the pandemic’s negative impact on their wellbeing. Despite social distancing measures, those in need do not have to struggle on alone. Learning to seek and ask for help when times get tough is absolutely crucial.

For business leaders

Managers must make a conscious effort to better understand how their employees’ individual differences and resources might impact on their work-related wellbeing, particularly when new rules and procedures (such as socially-distanced office set-ups, long-term remote working and extended furlough) are implemented in future. Doing this will help to foster greater commitment from employees and greater levels of respect between the team, and build trust – all of which will help employers to create working conditions that preserve the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. Helping staff to recognise signs of stress and their causes, maintaining an open-door policy for discussing problems, and providing training such as managing workloads and time allocation are all simple but vital steps.

For governments

It sometimes feels as if our governments have learned little from how the first lockdown period impacted on our mental health and wellbeing. With the exception of creating and allowing support bubbles for vulnerable individuals and families, and helping to facilitate a wider range of financial support for those in need, very little has changed policy-wise. And that is a mistake. While governments have rightly prioritised monitoring Covid-19 infection rates, it is also vital that they monitor society’s mental, physical and work-related health status alongside this so that, in the event of future pandemics and other crises, they’re able to better consider lockdown measures and implement restrictions and public safety policies that protect both physical and mental health as much as possible.

More information about the research this article is based upon, please search ‘ce84n’.

More information on leadership research visit the School’s Centre for Leadership and Followership.