Mental health and wellbeing: coming out of the crisis
All of our personal and professional lives have been affected in recent weeks and months, living in isolation and with social distancing. There is also a sharp dichotomy of lived experience of COVID-19: for those who work on the front line, particularly in health care; and for the rest of us. It is important to understand how the changes may have affected us and, crucially, what we have learned. Psychological research can give us important behavioral insights into how individuals and groups have reacted under similar circumstances.
Adversity and Resilience
There is a wide body of research looking at coping with adversity and the importance of resilience. Resilience results, to a large degree, from coping processes influenced by personal and situational conditions (Leipold & Greve, 2009). We may be predisposed to be able to adapt or be well-versed in self-development because we have had to adapt in the past. Problems can be unpredictable, as the current situation has shown, and so we must therefore develop our adaptive flexibility.
Similarly, it is thought that a moderate level of adversity is enough for individuals to thrive, creating a “steeling effect” (Höltge et al., 2018), particularly if they have experienced adversity before.
Our recent experiences have tested our capacity to balance work and life and whether indeed for some it is even possible. Some people will have been able to negotiate new work, family, carer, and personal roles successfully, and others will have faced a mounting challenge with no clear separation between those roles. The experiences of different individuals and groups, therefore, will have been varied and so too will the effect on their mental health.
Research shows that the way in which an individual cognitively processes an emotionally difficult situation will determine how well they cope (Wiese et al, 2017). The perception of work–family conflict can lead to negative emotions and moods which can affect a person’s behaviour within their families. Whereas, if work is perceived as beneficial for work–life enrichment, then workers engage more in their job in order to reciprocate the received benefits (Babic et al., 2016).
Role of the Employer
In addition to the individual being self-aware, there is also a need for the employer to be mindful of the effect of recent changes in working environment on their staff. By redesigning work tasks and supporting employees emotionally, this can help exhausted staff or those who have been under a great deal of stress (Kranabetter & Niessen, 2016).
In a climate of heightened anxiety, managers need to ensure that individuals are returning to work with sufficient resources and the flexibility with which to manage and, in some cases, re-negotiate their job roles.
A period of adjustment is therefore needed for everyone to re-acclimatise and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For some workers, however, this will be far more complex. The frontline workers, particularly those in healthcare, in many countries have faced greater challenges during this crisis and a more trauma-informed response to managing their mental health may be required. Psychology research has often featured those working in high-risk environments to understand how individuals cope with extreme pressure. Studies which have examined people working in high-risk jobs such as those in the military, aviation, and seafaring have found that the human factors which pose the most risk to mental health include fatigue, uncertainty, and depleted job resources. The absence of a safety culture and a perceived lack of trust can also result in a lack of effective functioning of a team or organization (Ioannou et al., 2016).
Research focusing specifically on those in healthcare sheds some interesting light on the need to support workers to:
feel they have sufficient job resources to deal with job stressors to offset the impact of job demands (Dutch nursing home nurses: van den Tooren & de Jonge, 2011);
be able to make proactive changes to their work by job crafting for a positive impact on performance (Dutch and US healthcare professionals: Gordon et al, 2015); and
mentally contrast their desired future with their present to help them manage the demands of their everyday life (German healthcare workers: Oettingen et al., 2010,).
And, so to recovery…
As we return to the workplace and to the community, we each face a unique and unprecedented challenge. But it is important to remember how quickly and effectively we have been able to adapt to new circumstances and to build on those successes. Aristotle believed that an individual develops courage by doing courageous acts. Courage can be developed by practice and successful performance strengthens an expectation of further success. Individuals are more likely to face a situation and attempt to cope with it if they believe they can meet the challenge. We are equipped with the resources we need for this; we just need to individually and collectively prepare ourselves, and move forward.
All of the articles cited are currently available to downloadfor free from Hogrefe.
Chong, A., Gordo, M., & Gere, J. (2018). The influences of work and home interference and facilitation on job satisfaction: An attachment theory perspective. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 17, 94–101. https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000202
Gordon, H. J., Demerouti, E., Le Blanc, P. M., & Bipp, T. (2015). Job crafting and performance of Dutch and American health care professionals. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 14, 192–202. https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000138
Höltge, J., Mc Gee, S. L., Maercker, A., & Thoma, M. V. (2018). A salutogenic perspective on adverse experiences: The curvilinear relationship of adversity and well-being. European Journal of Health Psychology, 25, 53–69. https://doi.org/10.1027/2512-8442/a000011
Ioannou, C., Harris, D., & Dahlstrom, N. (2016). Safety management practices hindering the development of safety performance indicators in aviation service providers. Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors, 7, 95–106. https://doi.org/10.1027/2192-0923/a000118
Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Brinkmann, B. (2010). Mental contrasting of future and reality: Managing the demands of everyday life in health care professionals. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 9,138–144 https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000018
van den Tooren, M., & de Jonge, J. (2011). Job resources and regulatory focus as moderators of short-term stressor-strain relations: A daily diary study. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 10, 97–106. https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000042
Wiese, B. S., Heidemeier, H., Burk, C. L., & Freund, A. M. (2017). When work takes over: Emotional labor strategies and daily ruminations about work while at home. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 16, 150-154.https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000174