Post-COVID Stress Disorder (PCSD)
The dramatic events of January 2020 are having a significant impact on employee mental wellbeing. In her article, Ngozi Weller explores how and why businesses should respond to the shared trauma of Post COVID Stress Disorder. What is the long term impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on workplace wellbeing?
Major Cause for Concern
When COVID first hit British shores and talk of a highly infectious, killer disease flooded our airwaves, I was nervous. However, in the absence of any COVID sufferers known to me, I remained cautiously optimistic. Yet as the death toll rapidly grew to the point where quarantine restrictions became a necessity, my anxiety grew to match. What would life be like? Would we able to pay the mortgage? Will there be shortages on the supermarket shelves? How will the kids cope without school? And even though with the passage of time we have grown increasingly accustomed to our new way of life, there are still a valid number of reasons to worry. Should we send our kids back to school? Is public transport safe? Will there be a second wave? And it appears that I’m not alone. Whilst the financial and strategic effects of COVID-19 vary from business to business, when it comes to the virus’ impact on employee wellbeing, most companies are facing similar issues. This global crisis, with its traumas and instabilities, will leave a legacy of mental health issues and as such, many companies will see an increase in the number of individuals returning to work with mental health disorders requiring support.
Wellbeing has taken a hit throughout the crisis, with professionals experiencing a universal drop in positivity. This impact is felt particularly keenly in younger generations and more junior roles, although numbers reporting positive wellbeing have almost halved since the lockdown began in every demographic.
The Lockdown Blues
Our experiences at Aurora during this period mirror this data, and over the past few months we have adapted our coaching workshops to suit the needs of our clients, who increasingly cite the problems and anxieties spawned by the COVID pandemic as their primary concern. Most report a decline in their general wellbeing, attributing this to the combination of the government’s social distancing measures and general anxiety about the realities of a post-COVID future. Junior employees in particular, along with those enrolled in graduate programmes, appear to feel this impact most keenly, with many stating that they fear that COVID-19 has undermined their opportunities and that this is contributing greatly to their personal anxieties about their future health and security. In fact, the Hays report indicates that currently only 29% of the Gen Z employees surveyed rated their wellbeing positively. Comparatively, long-standing employees generally attributed their decline in wellbeing to the pressure that is being placed upon their workload as workplace responsibilities increasingly compete with the demands of home life. The Hays report reflects this too, with 9% citing their workload as a reason for their declining mental wellbeing.
In fact, many symptoms of this decline in wellbeing bear similarities to the common symptoms of trauma and PTSD. PTSD itself will no doubt be a mental health condition that a large proportion of the population will be coping within the coming months, particularly those who have themselves contracted the virus, and subsequently fallen seriously ill, or those who have watched family members suffer in this manner, with many losing loved ones under very distressing and difficult circumstances.
However, PTSD is a non-discriminate condition, and it does not restrict itself to those directly exposed to trauma. In fact, as the NHS guidelines stipulate, PTSD can also affect those who are remotely exposed to traumatic circumstances. This is significant, because ‘remote exposure’ is a criterion that most of the population currently meet. We have all been remotely exposed to COVID related trauma, and for many, this has manifested in PTSD like symptoms. Whilst what many are experiencing in the wake of COVID-19 is likely not PTSD in the true medical sense of the term, examining our responses to this traumatic event through the lens of PTSD allows us to spot associations and patterns that might have previously been dismissed.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person, but they usually manifest in one of three key ways. The first is often referred to as ‘re-experiencing’. In its most extreme form, this can manifest as paralysing flashbacks to the trauma, however in milder cases, this may simply be a fixation on the traumatic event. For example, an individual with PTSD may constantly recall the trauma to ask themselves if certain actions or inactions could have prevented the outcome. When this is compared to the publics’ reaction to COVID-19 some similarities can be clearly seen. For example, many constantly talk about how inaction at the beginning of the pandemic, both on the behalf of the government and the individual, cost lives. Now, demanding a revision of the mistakes made at the beginning of the corona outbreak is perfectly reasonable and not what we mean by ‘re-experiencing’. However, if these thoughts become intrusive, and individuals blame themselves for circumstances over which they had little control, then this is a sign of PTSD. For example, an individual questioning whether their actions have endangered the lives of others, despite the fact that they have been following social distancing measures to the best of their ability.
A study conducted by King’s College London at the beginning of lockdown categorised 44% of the population into a group termed ‘The Suffering’, a social group which stood in contrast to its counterparts ‘The Accepting’ and ‘The Resisting’ insofar as it was the one that was experiencing the greatest decrease in wellbeing due to lockdown. 93% of people within that group stated that they felt more anxious and depressed than usual during this period, 34% revealed that they think about the coronavirus all the time and 64% said that they check social media more than once a day for updates on the pandemic. This fixation on the pandemic bears many similarities to PTSD’s ‘re-experiencing’, especially when you consider that 93% of this group are following lockdown procedures and are therefore already doing nearly all they can. In cases like this, it is possible to draw a clear similarity between the reactions of some to COVID-19 with those who are attempting to process a traumatic event.
A second common symptom of PTSD is known as ‘avoidance’. As you might guess from the name, this is the act of avoiding all memory of the traumatic event, often using work or hobbies to distance oneself. This symptom can surely be seen in those whose response to this crisis has been to resolutely ignore it, be this through throwing themselves into work, refusing to watch the news, or a myriad of other distractions. However, it must be acknowledged that this is not a helpful way to react to this life’s curveballs either and, as with PTSD, avoidance fails to allow the individual to process a traumatic event in a healthy way.
The final common symptom of PTSD is termed ‘hyperarousal’. This is a manifestation of anxiety which leads one to feel forever on edge and unable to relax, and consequently can be seen in symptoms such as irritability, angry outbursts, insomnia, and an inability to concentrate. Referring to the KCL study, 64% of ‘The Suffering’ stated that they have slept worse than usual during this period. In addition, indirect examples of these symptoms can be seen in much of the population. For example, many of the hundreds of people that we have worked through quarantine have cited de-motivation, and an inability to focus as predominant issues that they are facing during this period. Considering this comparison to the symptoms of PTSD you can perhaps see how, for some, these issues are in fact symptoms of anxiety and should be treated as such.
PCSD – The New Work Dynamic
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had some negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of most of the employee population, and employers must prepare for many of their employees to return to the workplace in this impacted state. In effect, they must prepare for a workforce struggling with Post-COVID Stress Disorder or PCSD, if you will.
In this period of turbulence, employees are wanting to see an increase in the wellbeing support offered by their employers. The previously mentioned Hays report demonstrates that that whilst most employees by-large have a positive opinion of how their companies’ leadership has handled the corona crisis, regarding wellbeing specifically, 50% say that no support is being offered at this time.
The report makes it quite clear that the shifting norm that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the priorities of many. 45% of those questioned now view a work-life balance as more important than they did before, with a further 44% and 36% of employees viewing mental and physical health support respectively, as increasingly critical resources. Moreover, in light of the difficult circumstances that this crisis has brought about, 35% of employees now prioritise their health and wellbeing to a greater extent, and in terms of specific wellbeing support, 47% desire an improvement in communication, 17% an increase in support services, and 16% asked for greater access to training opportunities.
On top of this, the national shift towards working at home has sat well with many employees who now desire to see this shift adopt some permanence. 45% expect to see remote working practices continue as part of a greater push towards wellbeing, with a further 36% stating that they will be directly asking their employers if they can work from home more frequently.
In a post-COVID world, employers are not just going to be dealing with an increase in the number of people returning to work with mental ill health, but they will also be faced with an increasing number of individuals returning to work with their own personal wellbeing much higher on their agenda. I have written before on the material cost to employers that inaction regarding workplace wellbeing can generate, with mental health problems in the U.K. workforce costing employers up to £42 billion in 2017 alone, and these words ring true now, more than ever.
What Employers Can Do
The issue of mental wellbeing must be tackled with the same rigour and fervour that any significant business issue is addressed as it is one of the biggest challenges being faced by employees. The link between employee mental wellbeing and productivity is well documented and at a time when companies are seeking to recover rapidly from the financial impact of COVID, it is critical that employees are operating from a position of mental strength. It is time that companies move from relying solely on reactive support strategies such as EAPs and Occupational Health to proactive mental health interventions that can identify a need before it’s too late.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Like anything worthwhile, it requires investment and leadership support. It requires a real intention to see employee wellbeing improve in your organisations and it relies on external expertise to support implementation. For too long businesses have viewed mental health and wellbeing as discretionary, a “nice to have but not really necessary” perk. With this pandemic however, the businesses that will thrive in a post COVID world are those which recognise that good mental health and wellbeing is as fundamental as physical health and safety. After all, good mental health is good business.
At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.