Managers struggle to help staff with mental health legacy of pandemic

Companies that looked after their people during Covid are reaping benefits because trust still exists

Much has been written about the physical symptoms of long Covid, less about the lingering psychological impact which continues to shadow people’s lives even though the immediate threat has passed.

Long mental Covid is the legacy of having lived through a disorientating global health crisis and employees are bringing the fallout to work with them every day. Despite this, few managers are trained to recognise and deal with the consequences of this distress which can present as problematic behaviour in the workplace.

“Every time there is a traumatic event, it has an impact on the neurons or the brain mechanisms that translate these unpleasant or shocking experiences into long-lasting memories,” says Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Imperial College business school in London.

“When something traumatic happens to us, such as Covid, it stays with us. That’s what’s behind the psychological aspect of what we are seeing now. It affects our hormones and the stress hormones in particular. Everything is processed cognitively but it narrows down to hormones and hormones to behaviour. Fatigue, poor sleep and headaches are recognised features of long physical Covid. The mental deficit is popularly known as brain fog and its symptoms can include poor concentration, mood changes and depression.


“In a work context, this is translating into absenteeism because mental health problems have increased due to what I will call the ‘natural experiment’ that was Covid – a natural experiment because people were not aware it was going to happen,” Prof Chaturvedi says. “When it did, they went into survival mode, lived inside, experienced or heard about death and saw or went through difficult behaviour patterns at home because people were stressed and fighting with each other.

“Their boundaries and structures went up in the air, there was spillover at home and spillover at work, and people had no external outlets to express how they were feeling.”

Prof Chaturvedi’s concern now is that managers are trying to deal with the mental health aspects of the pandemic legacy – from aggression to anxiety and low engagement – on the fly.

“Leaders need to be equipped to manage all forms of work, whether that’s the physical or mental load, but they have not been trained to do so,” he says. “They need to understand these psychological problems because they are often the first point of contact, even before any medical professional comes into the picture, and they will see the symptoms of depression, of anxiety or indeed any of the other stress disorders that we’re talking about first in their employees.

“If they are equipped to recognise them then we could see more people getting help sooner.”

People bring their moods and emotions to work where they influence productivity, creativity, engagement and teamwork. If one person in the team is feeling “off”, it’s unlikely to derail the task at hand. If the majority of the team feel out of sync due to a big life event such as Covid, then it will be difficult for the group to make good decisions until the prevailing mood shifts either naturally or with outside help.

Pamela Fay, executive coach to senior managers and joint programme leader on the Smurfit Graduate Business School’s diploma in business and executive coaching, says that mood is one of the things she has become most aware of since people began returning to the office.

“Having worked virtually on group coaching and facilitation programmes over the last two years, I had a sense of a group’s mood but not how it sat within their wider organisation,” she says. “I was missing the feedback you get from just walking the corridors or watching how people interact with each other. It made me question how an organisation can gauge the mood among its workforce unless they are regularly asking people how they’re feeling, even virtually.”

Fay says that there’s still a sense of “a low-level threat” hovering in the background for many people.

“Covid affected everyone differently, so there is no one fix. But there is no doubt that some people are still recovering from the shock of it,” she says. “To determine the extent of the aftershock, companies need to have a conversation with each employee to understand how they’re feeling, what they need and how they want to work. A simple example is that some people are introverts while others are extroverts and they need different environments to function well.

“Companies that looked after their people during Covid are reaping the benefits now because trust and openness still exist. Those that went into hiding, reduced pay and then didn’t show up for people are experiencing the fall out,” she adds. “Companies need to be reasonable about their ‘asks’ around working hours, online work and constantly contacting employees.

“What really needs to be called out is the hidden system. That’s what actually happens in organisations, not what’s written down as policy or procedure.”

Fay’s final piece of advice for organisations trying to regain their equilibrium is to revisit their employee assistance programmes and, where necessary, move away from in-house interventions to external providers.

“Many employees don’t trust internal assistance programmes, especially those involving peer support, so they won’t use them,” she says. “People want complete confidentiality, and this should be respected. I’m aware of one company that offered counselling to employees but did so at arm’s length by providing everyone with vouchers which they could choose to use or not.”