The Covid-19 pandemic (2020-2021) was not only a public health threat, but a mental health one, too. In lieu of a healthcare system structured to handle the many cases, people were told to stay in their homes. In some countries, residents were allowed outside only under strict conditions. And even then, individuals were required to wear masks at all times and to physically distance from others at least six feet. The abrupt upending of social norms that typically define human beings as social animals led to an epidemic of mental health issues.
Many if not most of the mental health concerns have not been resolved. A large proportion of them find their sources in physical ailments that would have been addressed months before, pre-pandemic.
Further, a dearth of mental health care workers — counselors, psychiatrists, clinics — have been overbooked for months. Waiting lists for their services are long and torturous for those whose mental health conditions are precarious. Even the psychiatrists for psychiatrists are overbooked! It is all but unavoidable that staff are bringing their delicate conditions into the workplace.
The three most prevalent mental health conditions that took root and evolved during the pandemic were anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Anxiety was a natural result of all the public health warnings about the potential deadliness of the Covid-19 virus compounded by long periods of isolation. For many, as well, as companies went dormant during the period and furloughed or fired employees, financial hardship became an additional burden. Young people just out of college, gig workers, and freelancers also lost access to income, exacerbated by archaic and arcane state regulations.
Depression was a natural result of the barrage of anxiety under which many had to function on a day-to-day basis. Many people felt hopelessness and despair in the face of mixed messages from the government, media, and experts.
Remote work may have helped keep service organizations operational, but the cost of the productivity gains and profits companies gained during the period led to worker burnout. Burnout is the result of continuously working at a task for a long period without a change of pace or concentration or positive feedback.
Diversity Managers and their Human Resources (HR) departments need to have explicit policies for their coworkers about dealing with mental health issues. The macho "just push through the pain" approach to retaining and nurturing staff never was and certainly now is not effective. Policies need to acknowledge the new world of work in which we've all arrived:
Acknowledge pandemic conditions and public health responses are not the fault of staff. The sense that individuals developed lockdowns of lives upended and out of their control persists. The Post Traumatic Syndrome (PTSD) that many still suffer does not simply shut off like a water spigot. It will take time for people to feel their lives will return to normal. Time and supportive work environments.
Have resources on hand for dealing with sudden and recurring pauses in the workplace or actual breakdowns that impact work. Those resources may be in-house or connect with a network of professionals experienced in dealing with PTSD.
Create flexible work arrangements and build in mental health days during which staff can decompress from work and attend to their own personal needs. Make allowance without penalty for parents who have found their own schedules and family support systems thrown into disarray.
The Covid-19 pandemic was like a tsunami that washed over every border of the world. The virus did not spare any country. Its effects on the mental health of most people was profound and will be long-lasting. Organizations can be both supportive of staff, increase retention, and be profitable if only they acknowledge that we all just experienced a world-changing event with profound implications for countries and companies.