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The COVID-19 Anxiety Cycle: A Mental Health Perspective

In addition to uncertainty over the impact the coronavirus (COVID-19) will have on business, the pandemic is also having an effect on individuals’ mental health. David Smith, EHS Commercial Director from our Melbourne office, writes that organizations need to protect the mental well-being of their most important asset, now more so than ever.

After weeks of confusion and a host of ambiguous data from governments, health experts and our social media feeds locking us in echo chambers, many of us are watching the development of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with feelings of concern and uncertainty. The impact of this ambiguity is affecting us all; it’s dramatically changing how we live out our daily lives.

When I took my daughter to school this morning and saw the three-quarters empty playground, the ominous quiet and stillness (a far cry from how a playground should sound) and the absence of parent chatter, handshaking, hugs and laughter, I felt sad. We are bombarded with alarming news, with seemingly every other word being “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” and our society is in apparent lock-down – but to actually feel the impact on your community, on the people you have a deep connection with, can leave you feeling very distressed and somewhat helpless.

You can’t help but take this feeling with you into your workplace, whether you are continuing to work from an office location or as part of a growing population of workers operating remotely. It can feel like you are not in control; it’s so easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread.

We may know what to do about COVID-19, but we may not know what to do with our fear. Whether in business, our families, or our communities, we all have a role to play to help deal with that mounting fear and anxiety.

Facts minimize fear

Employers and employees have a joint responsibility to promote health and safety in the workplace. Most employers will have already introduced additional physical controls, such as hygiene measures to help limit exposure to coronavirus or asking their people to work from home. But what about the mental health and well-being implications on our people?

The increasing severity of the pandemic may have many people on edge. And we’re currently facing a risk of an “infodemic,” in which misinformation spreads; adding to the mounting levels of uncertainty and anxiety. When we can’t control our anxiety, that emotional fever spikes into panic. You only have to look at the empty toilet roll aisles in grocery stores all around the world to fully appreciate the unique nature of this crisis and the state of collective panic it is inducing.

In the coming days, weeks and months, this fear and anxiety will likely increase as our lives continue to be disrupted and social distancing and self-isolation becomes the norm. Self-isolation in itself is likely to have a negative impact on some people’s mental well-being. The need for human contact is a basic instinct, therefore when you are forced to be alone, it can have a negative impact on well-being and psychological health.

review of the psychological impact of quarantine published in the Lancet in February stated that, “Separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status, and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects. Suicide has been reported, substantial anger generated, and lawsuits brought following the imposition of quarantine in previous outbreaks.”

When talking about prevention of stress and fear, during a recent Q&A session, Aiysha Malik, a Technical Officer at the World Health Organization’s Mental Health and Substance Use Department, called out the need to ensure focus on vulnerable groups, such as those with existing mental health conditions or substance use dependencies.

We need to be clear, honest, open and be communicating often with our people – in fact, all those we interact with. There is no substitution for calm and measured messaging from employers in relation to setting realistic expectations where work is changing and clearly communicating response plans, all of which may help to reduce anxiety in the workplace.

Communicating accurate information, little and often, and embedding a “keep calm and carry on” attitude, will help our people not get caught-up in the waves of anxiety and panic.

Reality for EHS professionals

As EHS professionals, we support our business leaders with nurturing healthy and trusting relationships with all of our employees. If we aren’t focusing enough on mental health right now, we will have a mountain to climb as the impacts of isolation, anxiety and uncertainty build in our employee communities.

This is why, in the face of such uncertainty, we should be tapping into our discipline’s structured methodology and stepping up to help our organizations and our people.

Our business leaders look to us for leadership during times of crisis – how many times have you heard someone in your company say, “I’m not a Health and Safety person, so you need to tell me what we need to do!” – so what can we do and say? Many of us will have mental health strategies and already established relationships with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), using these resources as a starting point will allow you to take action quickly and demonstrate care – not just to your people, but to their families as well.

We need to understand the landscape and work within it so that we can counteract its far-reaching implications and disrupting uncertainty. As humans, we crave fairness, certainty and relatedness so let’s all do what we can to provide this to our leaders and to our people.

However dangerous this virus proves to be, we need to be cautious of fallout from the panic, stressful aftermath and the chaos of imposed anti-virus measures. This is the long tail and should serve to focus our minds on where to invest our time and resources.

We all need to protect ourselves and in doing so protect others. We cannot wait for a vaccine. COVID-19 is not waiting. We must follow the sensible medical guidelines and since containment has proved impossible, delay is our key defense.

Let us all be leaders in changing behaviors to ensure the approach begins at work and permeates the way our people, customers and stakeholders behave outside of the workplace too. It’s time to shift the balance and turn adversity into action, threat into opportunity and fear into courage.


Mental Health resources available:

Manage Anxiety and Stress
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published guidance to manage stress and anxiety for a number of COVID-19 scenarios.

Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak (pdf)
The World Health Organization (WHO) Mental Health Department developed a resource for mental health considerations as support for mental and psychological well-being during COVID-19 outbreak.

Living With Mental Illness During COVID-19 Outbreak– Preparing For Your Wellness
Mental Health America curated tips and hotline resources for individuals with pre-existing physical and mental illness.

Mind UK
Mind is a mental health charity in England and Wales. Founded in 1946 as the National Association for Mental Health (NAMH)

SANE Australia
A national mental health charity making a real difference in the lives of people affected by complex mental health issues through support, research and advocacy.


See our health & safety resources for EHS professionals to monitor and ensure the health and safety of workers during COVID-19.

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