Two years on: The effects of COVID-related stress and anxiety on the workforce | EAPA-SA

Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic in March 2022, bereavement, isolation, uncertainty and fear have triggered a decline in mental health on a massive scale. Two years on, and a significant proportion of the South African workforce has now worked from home for some time – many of them successfully – and employers have made strides forward in settling on a workplace model for the future. However, there are still multiple factors at play that indicate the critical need for employers to support employee mental health. 

Employees working from home continue to be exposed to specific psychosocial risks. These include isolation, blurred boundaries between work and family commitments and an increased risk of domestic violence. Whether employees work from home or at their place of work, the fear of losing their job, pay cuts, lay-offs and reduced benefits can make employees question their future. Job insecurity, economic loss and unemployment have had a severe effect on mental health.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency response workers have been required to work under relentless pressure, for longer hours and double shifts, with increased workloads and reduced rest periods. Other workers, such as those involved in the production of essential goods, in delivery and transportation, security and safety of the population, have faced similar situations, including long overtime hours coupled with a heavy workload. On the other hand, other groups of workers, including those working from home, may have experienced work underload.

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic is known to have exacerbated existing symptoms or triggered a relapse among individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions (especially individuals who are isolated, or no longer have social support or any in-home assistance). Employees with pre-existing mental health problems are less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic.



US research begins to reveal the mental health impact of COVID-19

“The world does not yet know precisely what the full mental health impact of COVID-19 will be, although evidence has begun to emerge. Research from the US1 has found that 1 in 3 people who have experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms have since developed a neurological or mental health condition. Early research into the health impacts of lockdown [included] findings of fatigue, musculoskeletal conditions, poor work-life balance, reduced exercise and increased alcohol consumption. In relation to mental health, specifically, employees were reporting reduced motivation, loss of purpose and motivation, anxiety and isolation.”



An expanded employer role as a social safety net

“The pandemic has increased the trend of employers playing an expanded role in their employees’ financial, physical and mental well-being. Support includes enhanced sick leave, financial assistance, adjusted hours of operation and child care provisions…The current economic crisis has also pushed the bounds of how employers view the employee experience. Personal factors rather than external factors take precedence over what matters for organizations and employees alike. Employing such measures can be an effective way to promote physical health and improve the emotional well-being of employees.”



What should employers do?

Evidence shows that strong and effective leadership has a positive impact on workers’ mental health and well-being – lowering employees’ stress, anxiety and depression which is associated with increased sick leave and a hike in disability pensions. Successful leadership should ensure that an effective, functional management system is in place, which integrates organisation-level communication with hands-on management and various Health & Wellness and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) programmes.


Employers will need to adopt a range of measures to support employees experiencing poor mental health as a result of COVID-19. This support will be required both in the short and longer term. Measures will need to range from supporting employees to regain an effective work-life balance and addressing any fears or personal issues, through to support for severe mental health conditions. 

It is important that organisations engage with their people to understand how they are feeling. There should be communication with workers at an organisational level, but it is also important that line managers understand the specific concerns of their individual employees, so they can best support each person’s mental wellbeing. Front line managers are a great resource here. They work hand-in-hand with employees and better understand personal struggles as employees often will turn to them and other supervisors for support at work. What remains important is that employees experiencing poor mental health are not “labelled” by focusing on a diagnosis, but instead discussion and holistic support focuses on easing the impact it has on them at work and in their lives.  

1 6-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236 379 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records, Dr Taquet M., Prof Geddes, J.R., Prof Husain, M., et al., The Lancet (April 2021)

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