The influence of COVID-19 on the mental health curve

by Nicole Konstantinopoulos | Published on 26 June 2020 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter


We are currently facing more than one pandemic. Yes, COVID-19 may be getting all the attention right now, but there are other pertinent issues in our society. Some may argue that racism is an infectious disease, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement has created a ripple through societies across the globe. Gender-based violence (GBV) is at its peak in South Africa, and men need to stand together with women against this pandemic. But what about the ever-increasing mental health curve?

As many as 1 in 6 South Africans struggle with some form of mental health disorder. The most common being anxiety, substance abuse and mood disorders (such as depression), and the unfortunate close association with suicide. What’s worse is that mental health in South Africa is severely underdiagnosed and undertreated, with a certain stigma still prevalent in our society. Major organisations seem to still not take mental health as seriously as one’s physical health, even though our workplace is often a major contributor to issues like stress and anxiety. Mental health was a serious concern before COVID-19 struck. Whilst we may be moving down the levels, the pandemic is in full swing and not many have addressed how COVID-19, its effects and the potentially dire aftermath is and will continue to affect our mental health.

I am sure all of us have fantasized about being able to work from home at one point. We all tend to think of the advantages, which include not having to deal with traffic and being in the comfort of your own home. But after being thrown into the deep end, I am sure some of us are rethinking those fantasies. This is new territory for many and having to adapt so quickly has had a major impact on our mental health. Whilst some may be required to deal with the demands from spouses, children, or housemates, others may be dealing with the silence of empty homes. Not all of us may have a home office, some may not even have access to internet or a laptop, yet many were pushed into the same boat with the same expectations from employers.

Luckily, many have managed to adapt, adjust, and find new routines. However, many are suddenly, required to go back to the office now. Yes, it may sound as easy as riding a bicycle, you will find your rhythm again, but it is not the same bicycle. And with these constant changes, comes recurring waves of anxiety, each time taking a little more out of us than the last. How do we build resilience during these uncertain times and continue to perform optimally?

A big question that we need to ask is what are employers doing to help? Unfortunately, not enough. Whilst there are some examples of employers going above and beyond the call of duty, these are few and far between. Even though majority of organisations stipulate some form of “people first” statement in their values, they seem to forget about their people during a crisis. Perhaps feeling the threat and putting the bottom line ahead of the needs of their employees. This seems to follow the “profit first, morals later” sentiment, or just ticking boxes to ensure regulations are adhered to. This impacts the employee’s mental health and the employer’s reputation in the long run.

For instance, extensive regulations for returning to work and protocols to follow have been stipulated by Government and implemented by employers wanting to return to their physical places of work. But, where are the considerations for mental health, or the protocols to help those who may be struggling with a mental health-related issue. The lockdown and social distancing have interfered with individual’s normal coping mechanisms, therefore, improving accessibility to various support functions is required.

Organisations need to take a proactive approach, instead of only ticking boxes and following regulations. Ensuring employees have the necessary resources to comfortably work from home or are well-versed in the new protocols when returning to work which make them feel safer, are both essential yet simple steps employers can take. Providing a platform for educating all involved and opening the communication channels shows leadership’s investment in their employees. This could simply be through an e-mail blast focused on mental health, or a ‘well-being minute’ in staff meetings. We can’t flatten the mental health curve if the curve isn’t visible.

The support, investment and communication provided during the pandemic will be remembered long after the pandemic is over. And this ultimately may affect the trust people have in organisations. Instead of our values being lost in a time of crisis, lets rely on them to guide us through.