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Network News • 02-12-2021

Mental well-being and the impact of Covid

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 2nd December 2021

The biggest effect the pandemic has had, besides the obvious health issues, is on the way we work. Although it was always on the cards, the pandemic accelerated the way we shifted from decades of office-centric nine-to-five work, to a more flexible approach, allowing employees to work from home and measuring productivity in outcomes rather than in hours. This may seem an improvement in that workers avoid unnecessary traffic jams and wasted time in daily commuting.

Still stress levels are on the increase as it stands to reason that the switch to remote working adds tension on workers to deliver on time, making active communication over Zoom, Teams or Skype. It stands to reason, that if you already feel under pressure, it’s hard to distinguish when ‘stress’ begins to affect your condition, making it worse if workers do not seek help.

Health specialists tell us that many of the symptoms of stress and a mental health condition are similar. The main differences are the severity and duration of the symptoms and the impact they have on your everyday life.

For this and other reasons, workers want more support from their employer during COVID-19, and a few aren’t receiving adequate care and resources to address their symptoms. At a recent survey this summer showed how 58% of respondents said they did not feel their employer has taken more interest in their mental health during the pandemic.

On the other hand, employers have seen a rise in the number of staff with mental health problems - over a fifth now report that mental ill health is the primary cause of long-term absence. There has also been a significant increase in the number of reported common mental health conditions among workers. The masked agent called “stress” is reducing many employees’ productivity. Those interviewed have mixed messages comparing their stress levels pre-Covid and during Covid lockdowns.

As a general rule, it was revealed that workers have been less productive during the pandemic and some expect to remain at lower levels post-pandemic. One-third do not have access to mental health benefits through their employer. There are multiple reasons why employers don’t provide mental health benefits, including cost and not fully understanding the need, or lacking the information to comprehend the potential return on investment when workers are healthy and stress free.

It stands to reason that reported fatalities arising from Covid infections have increased worries among workers. Most preferred isolation and limited social engagement, which in turn spurned stress levels.  An overwhelming majority of workers want their employer to step up with added digital services and support so that they can access anonymously their internet-connected device.  Small and medium sized enterprises with limited resources acknowledge that traditional therapy resources are not existent and aren’t equipped to deal with the full scale of the mental health crisis.

While the cause is tied to pandemic-related stress, the diagnosis points to an ongoing, chronic issue of workers wanting more mental health support. This is likely to outlast the pandemic.  Ideally, larger firms should take steps to fully understand the emotional health of their employees and establish more flexible, digital programs that can provide clinically appropriate care tailored to their needs.

In Malta, the Richmond Foundation notes how requests for help with mental health issues have increased by about 500 per cent since the start of the pandemic.  The Foundation is now dealing with issues related to pandemic fatigue.  It received 4,500 requests for help in 2020 and 7,000 appeals for help so far this year.

Another victim of enhanced Covid isolation are the elderly. This often leads to depression and loneliness, and to a lesser extent cases of self-harm. Some patients relapsed as fear of venturing outside their home meant they did not head to the pharmacy to pick up their medication and lack of contact with friends and their loved ones are absent so there was no one ensuring they did.

There are workers (especially those in the hospitality sector) who did not have a previous mental illness and, when the pandemic struck, they experienced anxiety, depression or other mental disorders due to psycho-social changes such as loss of employment. When the over 60s, being more vulnerable to the virus, were locked inside their homes for their own protection, they lost important social interaction.

Reality shows how the number of COVID-19 cases started to spike again at the start of July with the third Covid wave and now Omicron (the new variant) is threatening to spread locally and possibly ruin our festive season.  Even youth has taken the toll of the pandemic. The banning of music festivals, rave parties and other forms of public entertainment has added to the range of restrictive measures.

Note how the never-ending construction spree has left its toll on our quality of life. Who would want to live in a country where we have been told by a major developer, that we should expect another 100 years of such ecological disasters. It comes as no surprise that the EY Generate Youth Survey found that nearly 60 per cent of young people in Malta would rather live and work in another country.

This is partly due to heightened stress factors and lack of good governance in the public administration. A curious development is the sudden increase in the number of people with mental health problems being forced to use the country’s only food bank, raising concerns about their long-term welfare.

Another barometer of stress was recently launched by Novargo research group (probably a direct order of Department of Industrial and Employment Relations). This found almost three-quarters of the Maltese workforce is satisfied with life, though around half report some symptoms of depression and one in four may need professional help.

The study reveals inter alia how, while two in every three experience high job satisfaction, more than 40% show signs of stress and anxiety.  When it comes to job satisfaction, two out of five employees experience high job satisfaction 42%, whilst 37% experience ‘medium job satisfaction’. A cool 21% said they experience low job satisfaction.

In conclusion, it is helpful if employers create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about mental health.  A good way is to start an open dialogue treating mental and physical health as equally important and making sure employees have regular dialogues with their managers and HR unit. Increasing awareness at work about maintaining positive mental health can be assisted by arranging professional mental health awareness training in selected workshops.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 2nd December 2021
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