The world has become filled with idiosyncrasies. It has become a global village, yet very lonely. It has enabled technological communication, yet stunted basic human compassion. It has provided access to resources enhancing intelligence but harmed emotional intelligence. The statistics of mental health challenges are trending on social media and in the news and are top of mind in organisations.
It is clear when one views the news, scholarly articles and research that mental ill-health has become the next pandemic post-COVID-19. Rates of burnout have increased by 107%. People are presenting with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicidal ideation has increased, as has the use of nicotine and OTC medication. Children are presenting with self-harm, risky behaviours and earlier presentation of autoimmune disease, depression and burnout. It is evident on the roads with increased road rage, and it is evident amongst impatient co-workers who share a hurried cup of coffee.
It has been revealed that more South Africans are suffering from mental ill-health than other countries. When COVID started, we were met with an initial time feast where no demands were made on our time in the initial sprint. Initially, individuals reported fear, but also a relief from the fast-paced world of commutes, office hours and social obligations.
As the pandemic continued, high performers put more effort into their work, allowing for more time to be spent on achieving. They became more lenient with their boundaries, as there were fewer distractions. As job insecurity emerged, performers began placing more emphasis on producing deliverables. The COVID era enforced social restrictions with no-go zones enforced legally, yet it created a blurring of work/home/life boundaries. The return of the workforce demanded a sudden return to performing at work but also fitting in other demands such as commutes, school runs and social engagements into an already tight schedule.
Not only did this time famine occur, but individuals emerged from the pandemic with less resilience. This is due to a number of factors:
- Those with pre-existing mental health conditions somewhat neglected their mental health in their fight against a very real threat.
- Social engagement decreased, thus limiting social support. This resulted in more social media engagement and less personal interaction. With time, this in itself can lead to lower emotional intelligence and challenges in communication, making one more adverse to reaching out to resources.
- Self-care routines were neglected in favour of performance.
- Corporates were concerned about economic sustainability rather than human capital.
Some of the most resilient individuals have become anxious and depressed, and only a quarter of them are attempting to seek help. Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, we remain unprepared to deal with this challenge. The topic of mental ill-health is mentioned daily through tight jaws by time-urgent and stressed individuals looking for a quick solution.
The only benefit of this mental health crisis is that many companies are starting to recognise the importance of promoting employee well-being. It has been demonstrated that companies are trying to promote a supportive work environment by changing organisational structures to enable a better work/life balance and expanding mental health benefits.
Some corporates are presenting with a phenomenon of quiet quitting. This describes employees who are fulfilling their job requirements but are not taking any initiative, not working overtime, and not volunteering for extra projects or responsibilities. They are just going through the motions, with no enthusiasm. It feels like the elastic band that has been frayed has finally snapped and the body is scheduling a forced break.
You need to recognise that when those balls you have been juggling for years become overwhelming, it is time to implement some strategies to promote resilience:
- Recognise when anxiety is functional and when it is crippling. If worrying about a situation yields a thought process on how to manage it, this is functional. Distinguish between those triggers that are real and those which are self-induced. One way to do this is to ask whether a relaxed person would also stress about the situation. Or to ask whether stress would be helpful in the situation: Is it preparing you to function by increasing adrenalin or is this just a relentless, chronic sense of heightened discomfort?
- Try to think of the four As in managing stress: Avoid, Alter, Accept or Adapt. Avoiding involves an action, altering and accepting involves changing your thinking about the situation; and when those have been exhausted, it is probably time to add a bit of adrenalin. 90% of our stress can be avoided or narrated differently.
- When the anxiety appears overwhelming, schedule a break for yourself, even if this involves the ritual of a bath or a coffee on the way to work or a nap. When we have reached our surge capacity, it doesn’t help to keep pushing. We need a way to temporarily give us more resilience to map the way forward.
- When things become overwhelming, take a bit of time to write down your tasks, as simple or as complicated as they seem. They become white noise in your head and putting them down gives you the opportunity to place them in baskets. Our brains function better with a decrease in mental load. These baskets can then be managed in order of priority or importance. Sometimes it may mean not tackling the most daunting task when your mental resources are at an all-time low. If you can manage some of the simpler, smaller tasks, you are already reducing the white noise.
- Given our post-pandemic adjustment from a time feast to a time famine, start implementing work/home boundaries. This might also involve you being selfish about overcommitting yourself socially and dedicating some time to doing nothing.
- Explore mental health initiatives offered by your organisation. Prioritise this as you would a medical check-up.
- If you are experiencing any suicidal feelings or you are concerned about depression, contact your general practitioner or human resource officer for a referral. Given the access to social media, there are many recommendations.
Mandy Rodrigues, Clinical Psychologist, Life Coach