Guest blog by Dr Roxane L. Gervais, Chartered Psychologist and Registered Occupational Psychologist
The past few weeks have brought monumental change across every aspect of society. Work, health care, social care, education, family life, have all had to undergo significant alterations to deal with the health threat that COVID-19 has brought to countries. The pandemic has quickly subsumed how we function, interact and connect. With some services and not others being defined as essential services, this has resulted in some professions, those usually deemed as frontline staff, having to do what is required to address the physical ill health that has escalated rapidly due to the nature of COVID-19. They are the ones who mainly remain in the workplace to provide health and social care. The all-consuming disposition of the virus has skewed, temporarily, how the health services function. The reduction of the prevalence rate of COVID-19 is the priority, as is the treatment of those who have the virus. Despite this focus, it is essential to acknowledge that all workers, especially those operating as frontline staff, have to be more aware of their psychological well-being. Many more demands are being asked, and expected of workers: emotional, cognitive, physical, and these may not necessarily be demands which workers may have experienced as part of their normal jobs. Further, these requests and expectations are occurring within a highly pressured and intense environment.
In addition to the demands, many of the essential workers are experiencing continuous stressors, both macro and micro, and they may not be able to deal with these over the short-term, so these may be internalised. These avoidance coping behaviours are not suitable over the medium to long term for workers to maintain their mental health. In the present situation, workers many find it easier to have an external focus, rather than accept that an internal review of oneself has to occur in order to continue to have the mental and physical strength to care for the public, as well as support work colleagues.
So, while there is a much needed focus on physical health; due to limited resources, the attention around facilitating the mental health of the frontline staff, and of course other workers, should continue to be highlighted and promoted. The slightly lower attention that is being afforded to mental health at present is inopportune, especially considering some of the unfortunate consequences that workers are experiencing due to COVID-19, such as the uncertainty, the fear, the loneliness, the isolation, and for those who have lost loved ones, the grief. These feelings, when combined with working remotely, or even when in the workplace and restricted to a 2m safe distance, do not allow workers to connect as they have done previously, when using their normal support systems. At present, these support systems are less tangible and will require a bit more effort from workers in order to gain the benefits.
As workers acclimatise to these adjusted work structures, and respect the new ‘social distancing’ norms, these should not be seen as behaviours that deter them from connecting. The objective is to observe the appropriate ‘physical distance’ from others, while retaining those social relationships that are of benefit to them. Social support is a key factor in enhancing workers’ well-being, so it is essential that they stay connected with colleagues, friends, and family, using appropriate technology.
The British Psychological Society has released guidelines for health care staff aimed at protecting their mental health. Organisations and individuals may wish to consider these as they traverse from one day to the next, or more likely from one task to the next, for which uncertainly remains as a constant, at present. In addition to embracing all of the support systems that are available, it is essential also to take a step back, re-energise, breathe, meditate, be mindful, and thereby clam the mind and body. All of these might be clichés, but they are clichés that are much needed to maintain a sense of self amid constant change, continuous uncertainty and panicked behaviours.
Dr Roxane L. Gervais is a Chartered Psychologist and a Registered Occupational Psychologist who provides solutions to work-related concerns. Her expertise focuses on occupational safety and health (OSH) issues to promote safe and healthy work practices.