Article submitted by Rivalani Mkansi
Frontline workers, such as health care and emergency workers, but also those involved in the production of essential goods, in delivery and transportation, or in ensuring the security and safety of the population are facing many stressful situations at work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (ILO 2020). Increased workloads, longer working hours, and reduced rest periods are a concern for most of them. In addition, they may be worried about getting infected at work and passing the virus to family, friends, and others at work, in-particular if appropriate protective measures are not in place. People working from home are exposed to specific psychosocial risks, such as isolation, blurred boundaries between work and family, increased risk of domestic violence, among others.
The fear of loosing the job, pay cuts, lay-offs and reduced benefits make many workers question their future. Job insecurity, economic loss and unemployment can have a severe impact on mental health. These and other psychosocial risks may arise or increase as a result of the COVID-19- crisis. Many of them may have emerged during the period of the rapid spread of the virus and strict isolation measures and still persist over time as businesses open their doors. Others may increase when workers return to their workplaces. If not appropriately assessed and managed, psychosocial risks may increase stress levels and lead to physical and mental health problems. Psychological responses may include low mood, low motivation, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, burnout and suicidal thoughts (Jianbo. 2020).
A range of physical reactions can also occur, such as digestive problems, changes to appetite and weight, dermatological reactions, fatigue, cardio-vascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, headaches or other unexplained aches and pains. There may be changes in behaviours, such as a change in activity level or increased use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs as a way of coping, in addition to changes in the person’s ability to relax or level of irritability.
Workplace actions for managing psychosocial risks in the face of the COVID-19 crisis
The protection of the mental health of workers should be integrated into workplace occupational safety and health management systems (OSH-MS), emergency preparedness and response plans and return to work plans developed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in line with the guidelines issued by the Department of Employment and Labour. According to the ILO Guidelines on Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems (ILO-OSH 2001), workplace hazard identification and risk assessment should be carried out before any modification or introduction of new work methods, materials, processes, or machinery. The process should cover all the different hazards and risks arising from the work environment and organization, including psychosocial factors.
According to these Guidelines, OSH prevention and control procedures should:
- be adapted to the hazards and risks encountered by the enterprise;
- be reviewed and modified if necessary, on a regular basis;
- comply with national laws and regulations, and reflect good practice; and
- consider the current state of knowledge, including information or reports from organizations, such as OSH services, labour inspectorates, and other services as appropriate.
The following actions should be prioritised by management to prevent and mitigate psychosocial risks and mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic:
1. Environment and equipment
Which has to do with the physical working environment, including the workplace layout and points of exposure to hazardous agents, can affect both workers’ experience of stress and their psychological and physical health (ILO, 2020). In particular, poor air quality, noise and ergonomic conditions may have negative effects on workers’ satisfaction and mental health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers are worried about getting infected at work, in particular: healthcare and emergency workers (including laboratory personnel, healthcare delivery and support staff, medical transport workers and death-care workers); workers in jobs that require frequent and/or close contact with the general public (including workers in shops and supermarkets, banks, public services, schools, transportation, delivery services, restaurants and tourist facilities); and workers in high-density work environments (such as factories, call centres, open space offices, domestic work, among others) or working in close proximity as in the case of domestic work
2. Work-life balance
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers are not only confronted with high work demands, but also have to organize their home life and look after their dependents, particularly if they have children, elderly, ill or family members with disabilities, or if they have disabilities themselves (ILO 2020). In addition, the restriction of public life aimed at limiting the contagion has a serious impact on people’s social lives. All these elements contribute to the deterioration of one’s work-life balance, with negative effects on the mental health of workers.
Many workers have been required to work from home, during the lockdown and even after the lockdown is lifted. They may have to share spaces with spouses, partners, children or roommates. Separating personal lives from work can become very difficult. In addition, when working from home it is easy for the boundaries between work and personal life to become blurred, with negative consequences for worker well-being.
3. Management leadership
Evidence shows that strong and effective leadership has a positive impact on workers’ mental health and well-being (for example, lower anxiety, depression, and stress) and is associated with less sick leave and lower disability pensions (WHO 2020). Successful leadership should ensure that a good and functional management system is in place, which integrate the various OHS aspects, including psychosocial factors. During the pandemic, employers are facing difficult challenges on multiple fronts at once: to self, family, workers, customers, suppliers and business partners, governmental and financial systems. In the emergency context, everything is in constant flux: the spread of the contagion, the rules and regulations, the market challenges, the temporary changes to labour law, and the various OHS prescriptions. Employers and managers find themselves under strong pressure, which generates stress. At the same time, they have a critical role to play in protecting their workers from the stress and psychological pressure generated by the pandemic.
4. Health promotion and prevention of negative coping behaviours
Psychosocial risks and work-related stress are associated with unhealthy behaviours, including heavy alcohol consumption, increased cigarette smoking, poor eating habits, less frequent physical exercise and irregular sleep patterns. All these behaviours may affect both physical and mental health and have negative impact on job performance. Lockdown and physical distancing, school closures, quarantines, working from home: all these bring profound changes to normal routines for people of all ages and from all walks of life, with negative effects on sleep and rest. For people working from home, excess screen time, especially later in the evening, can have a detrimental impact on sleep (ILO 2020).
The cumulative effects of insufficient sleep may be a serious risk for workers who have to care for others, such as emergency and healthcare workers, as this can also compromise their ability to care for patients. Workers under high pressure may not exercise as much as they normally would because they are too busy and do not have the time or energy. In addition, the physical distancing measures adopted in many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic often limit the possibility of doing physical exercise the way people were accustomed to prior to the crisis. However, it is in these situations that exercise is most needed in order to cope with pressure, anxiety and stress.
5. Psychological support
In workplaces where adequate psychological support is provided, workers experiencing work-related stress and other mental health problems are more likely to seek, and receive, appropriate help. This will help them to have a quicker recovery and more sustainable return to work. In this context, the WHO 2020 recommends the following actions to be considered:
- Integrate psychological support initiatives into the workplace COVID-19 response plan.
- Create a buddy system to monitor stress and burnout and to provide psychological support.
- Pay attention to workers with pre-existing mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities who may be less able to cope during this period and may need further support.
- Make stress reduction and self-calming techniques available (such as, online relaxation and meditation classes, tutorials and apps).
- Inform both managers and workers about how they can access mental health and psychosocial support services and counselling programmes and facilitate access to such services, including employee assistance programmes (EAP).
- Maintain confidentiality about the services provided to individual workers.
It is critically important for employers and managers to consider putting in place measures to protect the health and well-being of workers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure an efficient management of psychosocial risks, workers and their representatives should be involved in the process and they should actively participate in the identification of hazards and collaborate in the development and implementation of preventive and control measures.
- Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS). 2020. “Prolonged Operations in Personal Protective Equipment During COVID-19: Recommendations for Workers and Managers”.
- ILO. 2020. In the face of a pandemic: Ensuring Safety and Health at Work. Geneva
- ILO. 2020. COVID-19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses.
- ILO. 2020 (21 May). A safe and healthy return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic: Policy Brief.
- Jianbo, L. 2020. “Factors Associated With Mental Health Outcomes Among Health Care Workers Exposed to Coronavirus Disease 2019”, in JAMA Network Open, 3(3): e203976.
- Marco, N. 2020. “Impact of sedentarism due to the COVID-19 home confinement on neuromuscular, cardiovascular and metabolic health: Physiological and pathophysiological implications and recommendations for physical and nutritional countermeasures”, in European Journal of Sport Science.
- WHO. 2020. Mental health and psychosocial considerations during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Employee Wellness Specialist at Rifumo Professional Services
Rivalani Mkansi is an experienced employee health and wellness specialist. He is skilled in analytical skills, coaching, contract management and employee relations. Mr Mkansi is a strong healthcare services professional who holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and he is currently pursuing PhD in Admin and Management.
He has 9 years of experience in the field of Employee Health and Wellness. He joined the Department of Labour in 2012 as a Manager responsible for Employee Health and Wellness, Gender, Disability and Youth Programmes. He has been a member on EAPA-SA within the Jacaranda Chapter since 2009, and in 2015 was elected as Chairperson of the Jacaranda Chapter commencing in August 2016.
Contact number: (081) 216 1543