We had an interesting discussion on how several countries are dealing with covid-19 in the world of work. How is the mental health of employees (teleworking, still in the field or temporally without work?
Countries involved: USA, Thailand, Spain, UK, Canada, Belgium and France and our international perspective due to our worldwide work in the field.
Thanks to the experts (psychologists, HR/management, occupational doctors) representing those countries as well as their enlightened contribution on the topic, we were able to do a cross-country analysis on the difficulties, opportunities and best practices to put in place. Not only to support employees and managers to deal with the current circumstances, put also to project themselves through tomorrow’s way of working.
What are the impacts of the pandemic?
All experts agreed that the pandemic had an important impact on psychological health with indicators of high anxiety, uncertainty, chronic stress and depression.
For example, in the US, 70% employees say covid-19 has been the most stressful time of their career. More that 9/11 or the of the economic recession.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) identified in their research that 35 % of employees have experienced symptoms of depression going through the virus. Women, younger workers and people leaving with someone vulnerable that are the most impacted.
In France, according to our Human Imprint research, 53% of the population are showing psychological distress and 20% in danger of developing psychological disorders such as general anxiety, phobias, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. This percentage has decrease to 47% when the end of lockdown started in France.
The variables affecting mental health are:
- The influence of the possible dramatization and the important amount of information, often contradictory, coming from the media, as our expert from Belgium expressed. A sort of “infobesity” raced, generating massively fear and uncertainty, this variable was also manifested in other countries. Nonetheless, our expert from Thailand indicated their media also take a considerable amount of time to give advice to people on promoting mental health and reduce stress. Currently, Thailand is the first Asia country reporting not having any new covid-19 cases.
- The economic distress identified in every country analyzed. Our expert from US indicates that the majority of people wants to go to work to make a living. They have minimal protection for people who lost jobs, and minimal payment for unemployment. In UK as for France, Canada and Spain, the Government is trying to protect some work sectors and to give financial support for those facing a very high financial loss. Even though these measures give a sense of stability, there is also the realization that the support will come to an end at some point.
Even though these circumstances have created important difficulties, it also generated constructive opportunities.
Indeed, there is a very interesting awareness and co-responsibility emerging on promoting mental health, individually and within organizations.
For instance, in the UK, France and Canada, people have been taking seriously the need to take care of mental health. They have more Access to therapy,; things for free to do at home – sport. People are much more aware of things that need to be done for their physical and mental health.
Also, several experts agreed that an important amount of people are taking this time as an opportunity to go back to the basics, reconnecting with their priorities in life.
Also, our expert from Spain identified an important sense of solidarity and collective vision within communities and work-teams that had emerged since the pandemic started. A desire of helping others and “humanize” relations between neighbors and colleagues is seen today worldwide.
Another variable impacting mental health is teleworking.
How employees and managers are dealing with permanent home office, or the mix between the office and home in the time of pandemic?
Experts agree that working from home has exacerbated problems that have already existed in the workplace, but has also opened new opportunities for organizations.
One of the issues that has been discussed is the lack of trust. For example, our expert in US has mentioned the “out of sight – out of mind” experience of employees, who feel like their work and dedication are being questioned when they are not in the office. This can lead to working extra hours in order to show their dedication to the company. Similarly, in Thailand people are starting to work more in order to prove to the company that they are worth keeping, faced with increasing fear of unemployment.
The question of workload is over all seen as worrying. While some employees work extra hours, which can increase stress and fatigue, others don’t have enough work, which can also have a negative impact on motivation.
As mentioned by our expert for Asia, one of the factors that can increase the negative impact of working from home on employees is being confined in small apartments. This has also been confirmed by our French study that showed that 60% of workers staying in apartments less than 40m2 have experienced psychological distress.
Another issue discussed by our experts is that of maintaining work-life balance while working from home. This can be challenging, because for those workers who have families and children staying at home, the roles can be difficult to combine and separate.
For instance, many Belgium workers are complaining about lack of support from schools in occupying children during their parents’ working hours. Our Belgium expert also mentions that some companies give advantages to workers that have children, which can be perceived as signs of inequity for those without children.
Another issue for those who are working extra hours is feeling guilty towards their families for a lack of time spent together, even while being at home.
The topic of recognition of workers’ efforts during the pandemic is also increasing during this time. Our expert from Canada explains, that in the communication from government and organizations, it is if during the epidemic everyone and everything was “on pause”. This creates a feeling of injustice and lack of recognition for people who have been working hard all this time.
While the fatigue is accumulating, a lot of workers question the possibility to recuperate by going on a vacation. For instance, in Thailand, employees could not go on their yearly vacation in April, and have been working for months with no break. In Canada and some companies in France people are unsure if they will be able to go on holiday this year, which causes a lot of frustration. In Belgium, many workers had to take days off during lockdown to be back and available after – this obligation can be hard to accept. As our UK and Spain experts mention, there is a lot of uncertainty about the destinations and activities available for people who will take days off this summer.
Another issue that we need to consider is the comparison – employees start to compare and to confront the different experiences that they have lived during this time, which can create conflict. For example, within companies, there could be workers that had to go to their work place, while others stayed at home. This can create a feeling of inequity and the perception that some were “luckier” than others.
What are the opportunities that come out of this experience?
First of all, the pandemic has pushed organizations to think differently, to adapt and to find new ways of collaboration quickly. It has also shown the importance of trust between employees and managers, communication and increasing autonomy of workers.
We have observed that the notion of co-responsibility is extremely important to deal with the crisis and its consequences – top-management, teams, as well as every employee individually should become proactive in taking care of their health and suggesting good practices to better the working environment.
There is no doubt for our experts that teleworking will increase. In order for the new organization to work, we need to consider how to maintain human relations at work to keep on having interactions with our colleagues and managers, to set some ground roles by discussing on how does this organization is going to maintain efficiency and in the same time taking into account the psychological health at work, optimal working conditions, and also to keep sufficient boundaries between work and our personal lives.
Written by Valentina Urreiztieta and Nadia Butakova
Human Imprint / Empreinte Humaine