By: Stuart White 25-04-2020
Throughout the world there are 2.6 billion people (one third of the global population) in some form of lockdown or quarantine. What does this mean for us as human beings who are socially wired, what might be the impact of these extraordinary measures and what can we expect after this is over?
Last week I wrote about the stages we will likely experience during this time but our progression through those mental stages will depend on where you are and who you are. If you are with close family in your comfortable house and your main issue is that you are bored out of your mind and have run out of booze...your experience is one thing whilst if you are stuck in a poky flat on your own with your salary cut and worried about how to pay your bills at the end of the month and if you’ll be retrenched thereafter - you are likely having a quite different experience. And it will be the same with regards mental resilience. Some people may take this change in their stride, for others social distancing, government control and loss of routine and life as they know it may be the catalyst for a downward spiral in their mental health.
Some people may feel they should not be locked down and so feel anger and resentment. In neighbouring South Africa, where only 58 people have died, hundreds of thousands of people are facing severe economic hardships and as a result are arguing the merits of being decimated by hunger and poverty rather than the disease. Which is the lesser of those two evils? Criticism is high, emotions too and if you are government you’re dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t; - if you move too late you cause a lot of people to die but too early then you are criticized for being gung-ho. Overkill when your aim was under-kill!
Cognisant of the difference in people’s reactions and experience, I did a straw poll with some staff this week to measure how they feel about the lockdown and if there were any positive spinoffs. Most people only managed to coax out one good outcome and even that was a struggle. It was clear to me that people were losing more than they were gaining: people used to immersing themselves in the busy-ness of work feel lost; those who rely on the structure of religion and its disciplines feel unanchored; those that use exercise as a mechanism for coping are struggling; family members are in each other’s face and on each other’s nerves etc.. Most miss the office environment and camaraderie. Some feel isolated and find it difficult to work from their dining room table. Others struggle with the self-discipline required or with tech-based meetings and feel uncomfortable with them, even worried about the security and who might be listening in. The sheer ease of leaning over to connect and speak to a colleague , eye to eye contact and communicating by body language clearly cannot be replicated from home as many people start to appreciate the validation received day in and day out from co-workers. It feels like the novelty of the challenge and the excitement of change (if it was even there at the beginning) has worn off and what is left is reality – "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.”
The World Economic Forum recently published an article by Dr Elke Van Hoof, a Professor of health psychology and primary care psychology at the Vrije University in Brussels, entitled ‘Lockdown is the world’s biggest psychological experiment – and we will pay the price’. The article reported that just before the world went into lockdown The Lancet published a review of 24 studies documenting the psychological impact of quarantine (“restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease”). ‘The review’s finding’, it said, ‘offered a glimpse of what is brewing in hundreds of millions of households around the world. People who are quarantined are very likely to develop a range of symptoms of psychological stress and disorder, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms’. ‘Low mood and irritability specifically stand out as being very common’, the study notes.
In China, which it could be said has been there, done that, these expected mental health effects are already being reported in the first research papers about the lockdown. In cases where parents were quarantined with children, the mental health toll became even steeper. In one study, no less than 28% of quarantined parents warranted a diagnosis of “trauma-related mental health disorder”. In severe instances, reactions may even be likened to PTSD .
Of course, we still have a way to go with confinement and will only know what effect all of this will have in the future but it’s good to be aware that what you are experiencing may make you vulnerable and to understand and accept that what is happening is real. Drawing on what we know about psychological care following disasters and let’s face it this is one, there are some recommended guidelines, a few of which HR managers should be thinking about:
The bottom line is that sooner or later restrictions will be lifted but the psychological impact will undoubtedly linger for some considerable time, as will the very real personal financial implications. It’s fair to say that whilst most people will not catch the disease, the after-effects and slow recovery will be experienced by almost everyone. It’s a phrase I’m hearing more and more often and all too true - that the cure may ultimately prove worse than the disease.