COVID-19: Protect yourself from its psychological effects

COVID-19 not only has physical effects, but also affects the population’s mental health. So much so that many worry about a second wave, psychological this time. How can employers and employees protect themselves?

The pandemic created a shockwave, bringing together all the stress-generating ingredients. “On top of being unexpected, this health crisis was uncontrollable. Today, we still don’t know when and how this will end,” says Alessia Negrini, researcher in occupational health psychology at the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

Michel Vézina

Stress is a natural response to adapt to an event, she explains. “For a certain part of the population and organizations, the situation became an opportunity to reorganize, to learn, to review their way of doing things.”

But for already fragile individuals, the crisis might have exacerbated some vulnerabilities, like anxiety or distress. The same goes for organizations which might have found themselves with an outdated management system or little resources in this situation that demanded quick changes in their ways of working, producing and offering services.

“The crisis might also have affected people who didn’t have any health problem, says Mélanie Baril, occupational health and safety advisor at the CSQ. The work context can increase the stress level of individuals and generate severe health issues, up to burnout.”

Psychological distress at our door

The pandemic also upended the work life: teaching personnel were catapulted into remote learning, nursing personnel ended up on the frontlines and some childcare practitioners had to maintain their activities in the emergency childcare services.

Caroline Biron

“Many workers experienced the fear of losing their jobs, but also of getting the disease or transmitting it to a loved one,” mentions Dr. Michel Vézina, occupational health psychology advisor at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ).

The result? Last spring, almost one out of every two persons among Québec workers said they felt psychological distress, as measured by a research team led by Caroline Biron, professor at Université Laval and director of the Centre d’expertise en gestion de la santé et de la sécurité du travail. In total, 56% of women and 41% of men reported a high level of psychological distress, according to a survey of 1,215 people between April 30 and May 7, 2020. The proportion climbs to 60% for health and social services’ workers.

The level of psychological distress has been increasing since 2015. A study conducted that year by the Institut de la statistique du Québec showed that 33% of women and 24% of men experienced psychological distress. Preliminary results also show that this proportion slightly decreased with the lifting of the lockdown, but remains higher than in 2015, adds the researcher.

 

“Fear is worsened by not feeling protected, and it’s very well documented.”
— Dr. Michel Vézina, occupational health psychology advisor at the INSPQ

Effects on workers

Memory problems, difficulty concentrating, intrusive thoughts, judgment errors, musculoskeletal troubles: stress can have multiple consequences. “But most of all, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression or burnout,” underlines Marie-Anne Bougie, organizational guidance counsellor and psychotherapist at Gestion-Psychologie-Santé. Some people, witness to extreme events like what happened in CHSLDs, even experienced post-traumatic shock.

That’s why we must be on the lookout for the slightest hints of psychological distress, from the loss of appetite to dark thoughts. “If, for example, you feel sad most of the time, you have a tendency to increase your alcohol consumption or smoke to fall asleep, or you no longer feel interested in things you love or you have insomnia, it needs to be addressed,” says Marie-Anne Bougie.

If the symptoms last more than two weeks, we need to react. “The quicker you act, the more you avoid the paths that may to settle in the brain over the long term, with drops in serotonin and dopamine,” adds the psychotherapist.

First step: talk about it with the people around you. “Sometimes, the simple fact of talking about what is happening to you helps you feel less lonely,” she explains. Also, one should not wait until the situation deteriorates before turning to a professional, be it from the employee assistance program or another resource.

Thus, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! “What also helps to reduce stress is breaking the feeling of helplessness, to equip yourself and take back some control,” adds Marie-Anne Bougie.

Protecting and reassuring personnel

Marie-Anne Bougie

Regarding psychological health, employers also have a role to play. Indeed, only individual help is not enough when the problems come from work organization, explains Dr. Vézina. “Workers need to be heard and listened to when something functions poorly in the organization.” If the employees feel helpless and overloaded, there’s a risk they’ll withdraw, he adds.

The personnel must also be adequately equipped to face the health risk, as if sent to the frontlines. “Fear is worsened by not feeling protected, and it’s very well documented,” explains the specialist.

Furthermore, the personnel shouldn’t feel left to their own device once they return to work. What will happen if there is an outbreak? Is there protection equipment available? If so, where is it? Will part of the work, like class preparation, be done remotely? The clearer the instructions are, the more people’s stress decreases. “We need to plan different scenarios, explain hygiene measures to the personnel and train them if needed, explains Alessia Negrini. Effective communication will help reassure the workers.”

This is all the more important because the situation constantly evolves, like we saw in the schools regarding the class ratios, the distance between children or the implementation of bubbles, mentions Mélanie Baril as examples. “Of course, we need to give people time to make these new measures their own, but knowing they are properly applied and respected is very helpful,” she says. Likewise, supervisors must show flexibility and review their priorities in light of those changes.

Ghislaine Labelle

Mélanie Baril adds: “Employers have the obligation to act in regard to prevention to avoid their personnel suffering from a work injury, like an adjustment disorder or a depression, as the result from an unusual work context. They need to put limits on hyper connection and on the overflow of working hours that are done at home.”

Thus, managers thus listen, communicate and care, indicates Ghislaine Labelle, certified human resources advisor and organizational psychologist at Groupe SCO. She suggests, among other things, to create pairs of workers so they can help each other and share what they are experiencing. “In meetings, we could discuss not only what went well, but also employees’ concerns. Do people feel good? What can we do so that things work better? Asking those questions gives legitimacy to the demands.” According to Alessia Negrini, it’s also an opportunity to exchange success stories.

This approach also allows to keep an eye on different psychosocial risk factors that might have been increased with the crisis. That’s why the IRSST advises employers to act in prevention. “We must make it so the environment stimulates cooperation, sharing and decision-making, to promote autonomy. Furthermore, it’s important that employees exert some control on how they work,” mentions Mélanie Baril. We thus must ensure that managers have tools, and training, regarding mental health issues, adds Alessia Negrini. “Ultimately, employees must feel protected, heard, supported, recognized and respected,” summarizes Dr. Vézina.

Caroline Biron’s team’s research indeed says the same. Individuals working in “caring” organizations felt less psychologically affected by the crisis. “We found that these companies pay attention to the situations that might jeopardize psychological health, they offer opportunities to talk about this issue, without taboo, they request the participation of all hierarchical levels and their senior management is involved and quickly corrects problems of this nature,” says the specialist. In the organizations where all these factors were present, 24% less people reported a high level of distress and 12% more workers perceived themselves as “highly performing.”

Helping yourself

When everything is happening at once, you need to take back control over your life, which might seem difficult, however, in a pandemic context. “To get through the crisis, you need be able to let go of some aspects and act on what you can change, like planning your own routine or the way to protect yourself when in proximity with other people,” indicates Alessia Negrini.

The simple fact of giving yourself time allows you to feel better. “You can also decide to do meditation or yoga, but what is really important is creating a moment just for you. Because putting limits gives you back power. You do it because you chose to,” specifies Marie-Anne Bougie.

In the same vein, you must find ways to disconnect, by pursuing a hobby you like. “Physical exercise also allows to unload the day’s stress. Others will put on sweatpants when coming home from work. They feel they’re changing their skin,” adds the psychotherapist. A way to create a separation from the job.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and not isolating yourself are also key to keeping a balance. “It’s important to remember that it’s not the first time you find yourself faced with an obstacle or a stressful event in your life, adds Alessia Negrini. You need to think back on strategies and resources you used to get through other difficult situations.” In short, remembering the positive helps to have confidence in the future.

“To get through the crisis, you must be able to let go of certain aspects and act on what you can change, like planning your own routine or the way to protect yourself when in proximity with other people.”
— Alessia Negrini, researcher in occupational health psychology at the IRSST


How to confront anxiety?

There are various strategies to adopt when faced with anxiety. Some are individual, for example:

  • be aware of your negative and irrational thoughts;
  • let go of aspects you can’t control;
  • maintain a healthy lifestyle (good nutrition, physical exercise, etc.);
  • compensate physical distancing by virtual connections;
  • call on the employee assistance program.

Other strategies are collective and allow to take action in an environment that is harmful for mental health, for example:

  • engage in discussions within the health and safety committee;
  • apply the right of refusal;
  • lodge complaints at the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST);
  • lodge grievances;
  • train and inform workers and raise awareness about
    these issues.

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