The effect of Covid-19 on workforce mental health
We hear a lot about the medical effects of COVID-19 and more recently some of the mental health side effects of lockdown and restrictions. Although this is a large part of what society feels at the moment, there are some less talked about and understood side effects that COVID-19 has had.
One area which we are beginning to see a lot at the office and on social media is the effect of redundancy on people's mental health and the rejection they feel, both from the redundancy itself and the potential difficulties in finding new work. It is in these two areas we are seeing a profound effect in my counselling rooms and across all of my therapists. Last week, whilst working on business strategy with Dan from Eiger Consultancy, we had some really interesting conversations about the state of employment, recruitment and the effect this is having on the workforce. Following our time together we agreed to put some ‘meat on the bones’ in this short blog and hopefully you will see that you can overcome this, and in fact, the truth is, you are not the problem.
Our mind is a complex thing, and any scientist will tell you it is an extremely clever piece of kit, but, as a therapist I tend to disagree. There is very little understood about the human brain but the one thing I will say with a certain amount of confidence is that it’s a little bit stuck in the past, without a grasp on the modern world, and the events surrounding it.
We all have several different coping strategies to help us through the day, but we also have some in common and the one I’m concerned with in this blog is anxiety. Anxiety is, by its very nature, a negative thing. Right? Well yes, but it was not always the case. Way back in our prehistoric past at the same time as we were harnessing the power of fire, our hunting or gathering ancestors would have, at some point, been foraging in the bush and more often than not they would have been attacked by wild animals. This would have been around the same time that the fight or flight mechanism would have evolved and you would either fight the animal, run from the animal or just simply freeze. At this point your brain is looking for a way to protect you in the future. This protection mechanism sees the bush and similar environments as dangerous and triggers an early warning system known as anxiety, whose purpose is to try and prevent us from getting in harm's way.
So when we fast forward a few 1000 years and you have been made redundant from work, a job you have enjoyed and been good at, it is at this moment your mind and body feels the rejection, feels the anger, frustration and sadness. Your body can then see this as a threat, just as the hunter saw the bush, and as everything in our mind is black or white, with no grey areas, this extreme emotion and stress is just that. A threat. So our brain begins to look for answers to protect us from these feelings, and during this time we commonly ruminate or over-think. This is our mind's way of looking for answers and in this deep thought we sometimes find the answers to this heightened state of emotion but other times we are unable to find the answers we are looking for. On the occasions we are unable to find a direct fit for our worries the brain searches for the best fit solution, regardless of its factual accuracy. This inaccurate recall of information can lead to negative thoughts such as ‘I wasn’t good enough’ or ‘I knew my boss didn’t like me’. It is because of negative thoughts and self-talk such as this that I consider the brain stuck in the past. Due to human evolution the world has changed around us, somewhat for the better, but our basic human survival instincts haven’t developed in the same way, leaving us with this outdated and negative reaction to modern problems, and it is this reaction that has led to anxiety being considered a negative aspect of our behavior.
We are seeing this behaviour becoming more and more predominant as a result of the pandemic. Many people have been made redundant or simply let go. Many more are still on the government furlough scheme with uncertain futures. You only have to look at the amount of people on LinkedIn with the green ‘Open to work’ banner to realise the sheer number of people looking for new employment and the stress and anxiety that this brings. Many will be applying for work without any replies and it is likely a fair few rejection. This level of rejection leads to a compounded effect of the stress and anxiety emotions, and we can begin to create a negative self-image, this can be seen in self-doubt, low self-esteem and even in depression. All of which can lead to us seeing ourselves in a negative light which can then affect how we apply for roles, or how we engage in interviews and even how we perceive the world around us. It is here our anxiety is leading the charge, I wont apply for this, I’m not capable of that, we become fearful of failure and rejection, so anxiety prevents us from moving forward, just like our ancestors before us, our brain is trying to protect us from danger.
As the title suggests, reality plays a huge role in the process of anxiety, as in the case of the hunter, they were at risk and therefore their reality backs up the emotions and created a successful cognitive reaction. However, in the case of so many of our workforce, the reality does not match the reaction. We experience many negative thoughts and feelings as outlined in the example earlier and the brain is searching for answers that do not necessarily fit the question. The mind will not consider what it is unaware of. For example: it was more than likely that the employer was devastated to have to make people redundant and the decision that led to redundancy was not personal. Applicants that were unsuccessful in the selection process was due to the job market being overcrowded and not a reflection of them. Or that many employers simply could not recruit due to widespread recruitment freezes. In many examples the individuals being made redundant or applying for roles without success are not aware of this, so our brain begins to make assumptions that are based outside of reality. It is here that we can attempt to affect change. Ask questions, ask for feedback, give yourself the evidence and knowledge to be able to come to a conclusion based in facts and reality.
The world is in unprecedented times and many of us are simply passengers in a time of change and uncertainty and I would like to finish in the same way as I opened; the stress and anxiety you feel is real, however, it is not you and you can overcome this.