One of the biggest challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic has been the loss of control, coupled with increased stress, fear and anxiety. Most of the effects of the pandemic are outside of our control. We have lost control over our daily routines, over socialising, freely travelling, and over our work routines. COVID-19 has left many of us feeling completely and utterly uncertain.
But, rest assured. Feeling sad, stressed, confused and even angry during this time is completely understandable. There is sound, scientific reasoning behind these emotions. According to Dr Francis Collins & Joshua Gordon (2020):
- The anxiety we are feeling is related to the uncertainty related to contracting the virus
- The uncertainty refers to what is happening to our society, communities, countries and economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty over the economy, employment, finances, and relationships, physical and mental health, leaving us with no sense of control over our lives and wellbeing (Robinson & Smith, 2020).
- Grief we might be experiencing is due to losing our sense of certainty, losing our normal day-to-day interactions and routines, and losing our sense of power and control.
According to Robinson & Smith (2020), our feelings of uncertainty, fear and anxiety are essential emotions, necessary for growth and perseverance in life. These emotions help us build and maintain stability in our lives.
According to Kurth (2015), fear and anxiety help us find strength and insight to address the challenges we might be facing, through past experiences. The more complicated life gets, the more these emotions evolve and the better we are able to cope with the different challenges life throws at us. Many people dislike or avoid fear, uncertainty and anxiety. However, in some circumstances, these emotions have helped us step out of our comfort zones, try out new things, meet new people, and achieve goals that we thought would be impossible to accomplish (Robinson, 2018).
Fear is our natural response to uncertainty (Grupe & Nitchke, 2018). This could apply to dangerous situations or be in response to a situation we might be anxious about, like a job interview, public speaking or going on a date. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation (2020), fear as a strong emotion can have a great effect on our body and mind, by sending response signals to the mind in times of distress, which can make the body react in a flight or fight mode.
The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of South African workplaces
This year’s Corporate Wellness Week comes at a time when people are being encouraged to practice social or physical distancing. The pandemic has been damaging too many South Africans’ mental health and wellbeing. It has also affected many industries and their workforces. According to an article published by Business for SA (2020), mental health problems have been growing and impacting on business owners, managers, employees, workers and their families.
Many employers have been faced with the tough tasks of ensuring sustainability, productivity, restructuring, retrenching, while at the same time working to ensure safe working environments for their staff under the current circumstances. The impact of COVID-19 has added additional stress to most people’s mental health.
According to a survey by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (March 2020), conducted during the lockdown, 55% of participants expressed feelings of anxiety and panic, and 46% were found to be under financial stress and pressure.
Many organisations are struggling with working remotely, and with ensuring the health, safety and productivity of their employees. Below are some tips on how to maintain mental health during these times of uncertainty from an organisational perspective (B4SA, 2020):
- Maintain regular communication with your employees. A routine daily check-in is good for you and for them
- Keep staff up to date about your business’ response to the pandemic
- Make sure your staff are aware of the support that is available to them
- If you’re concerned about a colleague, make sure to check-in and encourage them to get the support they need
How do we overcome the unknown?
Uncertainty can diminish how efficiently and effectively we prepare for the future and thus contributes to anxiety (Grupe & Nitchke, 2013). With the unpredictability and uncertainty of the effects of COVID-19, it is human nature to hold on to our known coping mechanisms, a place where we feel in control, and a place where there is steadiness and we are in control of our routines.
According to Robinson & Smith, 2020 – it is during these times that we realise our emotional capabilities, abilities and resilience, which we will need to overcome these times of uncertainty. Knowing that there is validation to how we feel and that we are not alone, can be comforting. While many things are beyond our control, our mind-set is key to coping with difficult circumstances and facing the unknown.
No one can avoid the unexpected. But these simple steps can help you face life’s uncertainties a bit better (American Psychological Association, 2019):
Be kind to yourself. Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties than others, so don’t beat yourself up if your tolerance for unpredictability is lower than a friend’s. Remind yourself that it might take time for the stressful situation to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.
Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past – and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful, and what you might like to do differently this time.
Develop new skills. When life is relatively calm, make a point to try things outside of your comfort zone. From standing up to a difficult boss to trying a new sport, taking risks helps you develop confidence and skills that come in handy when life veers off course.
Limit exposure to news. When we’re stressed about something, it can be hard to look away. But compulsively checking the news only keeps you wound up. Try to limit your check-ins and avoid the news during vulnerable times of day, such as right before bedtime.
Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. When uncertainty strikes, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios. Get out of the habit of ruminating on negative events.
Take your own advice. Ask yourself: If a friend came to me with this worry, what would I tell her? Imagining your situation from the outside can often provide perspective and fresh ideas.
Engage in self-care. Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Make efforts to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Many people find stress release in practices such as yoga and meditation.
Seek support from those you trust. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. But social support is important, so reach out to family and friends.
Control what you can. Focus on the things that are within your control, even if it’s as simple as weekly meal planning or laying out your clothes the night before a stressful day. Establish routines to give your days and weeks some comforting structure.
Ask for help. If you’re having trouble managing stress and coping with uncertainty on your own, ask for help. Psychologists are experts in helping people develop healthy ways to cope with stress.
With everything that is happening around us these days, the only thing that is certain is that change is inevitable. One way we can overcome uncertainty is by building resilience. We build resilience by unpacking our negative experiences, by reducing stress, creating predictability and staying present (American Psychological Association, 2012).
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- Business for South Africa (2020). Business for South Africa supports accelerated transitions to phase restart of the economy. Accessed at https://www.businessforsa.org/business-for-south-africa-supports-accelerated-transition-to-phased-restart-of-the-economy/
- South African Depression and Anxiety group (2020).
- Kacmanovic, J. (2019). Ten tips for dealing with the stress of uncertainty. American Psychiatry Association. Accessed at https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-uncertainty
- American Psychological Association (2012). Building resilience. Accessed at https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
- Botha, N. (2020). How businesses can support mental health in the covid-19 workplace. Accessed from https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/858/203712.html
- Collins, F., and Gordon, J. (2020). Dealing with stress, anxiety and grief during Covid-19. National Institute of Health. Accessed at https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/04/07/dealing-with-stress-anxiety-and-grief-during-covid-19/
- Kurth, C. (2015). Anxiety, normative uncertainty, and social regulation. Biology and Philosophy, 31 (1). Accessed from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10539-015-9508-9
- Grupe, D., W. & Nitchke, J., B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: An integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. National Institute of Health Public Access Author Manuscript, 14 (7). Accessed from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4276319/
- Robinson, L., and Smith, M. (2020. Dealing with Uncertainty during the Coronavirus pandemic. Help guide. Accessed at https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/dealing-with-uncertainty.htm
- Robinson, T (2018). This is what happens when you move out of the comfort zone. Lifehack. Accessed at https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/this-what-happens-when-you-move-out-your-comfort-zone.html 11. Mental Health Foundation (2020). How to overcome fear and anxiety. Accessed at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/overcome-fear-anxiety