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Home News 2022 Mental health in a post pandemic workplace

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2022 News • 2022-11-04

Mental health in a post pandemic workplace

Post COVID Wordkplace

As COVID-19 is slowly disappearing along with facemasks and vaccinations, more workplaces around the country are getting back to normal. But what is normal? For some it’s a two day, three day or even a full week back in the office. For some it’s still working remotely, whilst keeping up their normal work rate - but what is the real toll of more than two years out of the office?

Whilst no official South African stats are yet available on this issue, US based management consulting firm McKinsey and Company found productivity, engagement and morale on the job rose during the pandemic. Fifty-two percent of employers reported their employees were more engaged, with only nineteen percent showing a decline.

What they also found though was that mental health concerns and burnout have ‘skyrocketed’. Their research showed that whilst the actual work rate was fine, employees were suffering emotionally, psychologically and even physically. The results of this survey McKinsey felt was that eventually depression, anxiety, stress and burnout will drastically decrease work performance, reduce job satisfaction and negatively affect interpersonal relationships with colleagues.

The multi-generational workplace

Working in a company where we have different generations within our workforce clearly shows different attitudes to the working from home vs returning to the office debate. The younger staff such as our trainees, have grown up with technology rather than face to face interaction, so perhaps don’t feel so socially isolated as our more senior staff.

Recent studies have shown that generation diversity is a positive element of work, being able to learn from each other and gain valuable experience. Seeing things from different perspectives can often enhance workplace experience.

One thing that comes out of most studies around the post-COVID-19 workplace is that hybrid work and flexibility is here to stay. US based research company Gartner’s reporting shows that companies need to ‘design work around employee-driven flexibility, culture connectedness and human leadership’.

More than just the money

Whilst there’s no doubt that money certainly plays a leading role in attracting talent, companies that offer flexible working conditions may find this as great a lure as the pay check. Results from a study by leading US HR company Oyster showed that flexible working options was the second most important priority for all age groups with the ability to work from anywhere third. It showed that people appreciated this autonomy.

People overwhelmingly want a workplace where relationships can be built even with hybrid conditions and most importantly where they are shown appreciation and nurtured at all ages.

Hiding behind screens

What is worrying about not seeing team members regularly is that we may be missing those signs that show perhaps something isn’t right. That they’re burnt out or struggling in some way. Some research has shown that working away from the office has put extra pressure on staff, who feel they have to put in even longer hours to prove they’re still performing. When people are working remotely it’s almost impossible to notice these problems. When you can’t see and sense whether something’s changed how can you help? We try hard to pick up signs of problems and even suggest they come to work in the office for a few weeks until we see an improvement. It’s not enough to know their work is fine but also their mental health.

A new era of balance

What has also come out of many surveys is the greater realisation of the importance of balancing work and lifestyle. Taking time for yourself and your family can only enhance your health. For some mothers in particular being able to work from home took a lot of pressure off their normal balancing act of leaving work to fetch children, coping with homework and extra murals. But on the other hand some said they couldn’t wait to get back to work…

Since restrictions have lifted our trainees are going into client’s workplaces and interacting with them, which is a healthy situation but it still doesn’t make up for the social contact their own workplace offers. For our more senior staff remote meetings on the other hand have proven a bonus, allowing them to see double the amount of clients in a day without having to travel to their businesses.

The post-COVID workplace

We are, like so many other companies, still feeling our way back to ‘normal’ working conditions, whilst trying to be flexible. Whilst some companies are insisting their staff return to a full working week, we’re still flexible in this regard. All these issues have to be taken into account, particularly when it comes to attracting ‘talent’ into our workplace. And then when they join your organisation making sure they’re happy and comfortable with the working conditions. One local company has even done away with set leave times. They tell their employees to take leave whenever they feel the need for it, as long as their work is passed on to someone else, or their team can take it on while they’re away.

Judging the climate

According to Cassey Chambers, Operational Director of SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group), “A lot of employees who have been phoning SADAG or engaged within our corporate talks and workshop activities have been sharing how difficult it’s been to constantly navigate these changes. Working at home during lockdown was the first major adjustment, followed by coming back to work when the pandemic appeared to die down, only to have another flare up and once again be out of the office. Learning to constantly adapt and adjust during these last two years has taken its toll on both employers and employees, depleting resources and seeing a lot of stress and burnout.

“With many companies now insisting on staff going back to the workplace and carrying on ‘as normal’ you have to ask what that is? Our world today is very different, our workplace is very different and we are very different. The question is how do we join these different worlds together and stay mentally healthy?” concludes Chambers.

In this post COVID world one thing is certain. We can’t just pick up where we left off two and half years ago. This is a new era and one where we have to listen, look and navigate not just our staff’s output but the whole picture of their well-being, including their mental health.

Sharon Bensch
Partner, PKF VGA

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