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Work, wellbeing and the pandemic

There is a consensus, supported by data from the Office for National Statistics, that key indicators of psychological wellbeing such as stress, anxiety and depression are being affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The role of work in almost everyone’s life has been significantly disrupted during the pandemic – for some work demands have skyrocketed, for others there is no work or there is a major change to working patterns and practices. These work pressures, along with government restrictions on behaviour are major challenges to everyone’s wellbeing.

True in normal times – and even more important during the current pandemic and our recovery from it – research into workplace pressures has identified a core of specific pressures that combine to either support or damage mental health and wellbeing. The three main pressures are: Demands, Control and Resources & Support. Challenging work demands are healthy, otherwise how can your people feel any sense of achievement? So, a degree of pressure is fine but there is a difference between “Challenge” and “Hindrance” pressures. Pressures that provide a fair challenge can motivate your employees and help to make work meaningful and satisfying. Pressures that hider performance and make it harder for employees to achieve their goals have the opposite effect and create undesirable stress. So, as the pandemic forces changes on our work behaviour it is even more important to identify and get rid of hindrance pressures, whether they are caused by inadequate resources or equipment, ambiguous job demands, too little control or any of the other factors that get in the way of your people enjoying a Good Day at Work.

People can manage challenging job demands much better when they have a good degree of control in how they do their work and they have the right resources and support to do the job. If demands are high but control is absent or resources are not there, it becomes much more difficult to feel on top of things – and that’s when mental health and work performance can start to suffer.

As our responses to the pandemic change and develop, these pressures will fall into the areas mentioned above but the emphasis will be different from normal. It will be different for different people and will change as we move through the various phases of the pandemic. For example, for some people the difficulties of working from home may mean that job conditions are a major problem, this could improve with additional resources, and then workload may become more important. A successful manager will get the best out of people and help to retain their wellbeing by monitoring the pressures on his or her team and trying to ensure that they are a positive source of challenge and motivation, rather than hindrance and stress.

The pandemic creates threat, whether that is threat of job loss, illness or excessive work pressure – and, in turn, threat will cause people to be more fearful. We know, from psychological research, that fear can cause your people to see things differently. When they are fearful they are more aware of the downside, more alert to bad news and this again drives more concern and fear. By contrast, feeling good predisposes them to see things more positively. So, it’s important, in times like these, to develop the capability to empower your employees to have a balanced view of the risks. Otherwise they may be too dismissive of the dangers and put themselves or others at risk, or they may be overly frightened, constrict their behaviour too much and create mental health risks.

So, to sum up, yes, there are risks and yes, we are going through challenging times but it’s also important to remember that the majority of us will cope and will emerge relatively undamaged, perhaps even stronger. Two important findings from psychological research underline these final points. First, the evidence from studies that have examined what happens to people’s mental health when they have experienced severe trauma, such as a natural disaster. Although a small minority of individuals may experience lasting psychological damage the available evidence shows that the majority of people, more than 70%, follow what is referred to as a “resilience trajectory” and do not experience lasting mental health problems. There is also evidence, from previous research, showing that when people are exposed to significant adversity, as long as they are not completely overwhelmed by it, they can emerge stronger and more resilient.

By Professor Ivan Robertson

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