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Is Covid-19 a mental health tipping point?

As the pandemic drags on, Dr Craig Knight offers an insight into the potential long-term mental health effects of Covid on the workforce.

08/10/2020 4 min read

Editor’s note: As COVID-19 brings mental health into sharp focus for us all, we present a series of thought-provoking expert opinions on the state of mental wellbeing at work. Read more here.

Dr Craig Knight is the founding director of Identity Realization, a psychological organisational consultancy offering change management consultancy, design assessment and leadership training.

With C-suite experience dating back to 2000, Dr Knight is a global thought leader in change management and the impact of the working environment,  investigating how leadership, design and management affect wellbeing, intelligence and productivity.

What prompted you to first become involved with mental health?     

Concern over people’s working conditions. When you see lower status workers being corralled into ever tighter, increasingly uniform, spaces; with decreasing amount of control, while their managers – and more qualified colleagues – receive ever better treatment, sexier spaces and attention, it makes you wonder:

  • What justifies this discrimination?
  • Are managers an advanced species?
  • What are the ramifications for wellbeing across all people?

Why do you think mental health has suddenly become the key topic when it comes to people talking about wellbeing?

Like most things, it has been celebrity led. There is a fashion for self-disclosure rather than the old ‘stiff upper lip’. This has taken hold so that people from the heir to the throne to friends enjoying a morning coffee now feel freer than before to talk about their perceived mental wellbeing. What is cool has seen Bogart replaced by Beyonce.

Is poor mental health on the rise – or is it awareness of the subject that is growing? Has the stigma once associated with mental health issues disappeared?  

It is a symptom of the trend. Traits that would have been kept under wraps are now circulating currency. So yes, the stigma of, say, depression has diminished. This is excellent. However, the opportunity for self-indulgence is now irresistible for many. ‘If Taylor or Robbie has a problem, then I’d better have one too.’ Pre-COVID mental health – as a hypothesis – was likely better than for many generations previously, but complaints about the issues that exist were set to rocket.

For most, COVID conditions will cause a deterioration in mental health. This can, in part, be laid at the door of the authorities, their globally stupid phraseology and the awful term ‘Social distancing’. This is the last thing we should be doing. Physical distancing keeps us safe, but social interaction saves lives.

Has COVID/lockdown caused an increase in poor mental health issues – or is it more that it is bringing the issue to the fore?  

For most, COVID conditions will cause a deterioration in mental health. This can, in part, be laid at the door of the authorities, their globally stupid phraseology and the awful term ‘Social distancing’. This is the last thing we should be doing. Physical distancing keeps us safe, but social interaction saves lives.

The lack of togetherness will have detrimental effects. Few mammals are as social as homo sapiens. And for the elderly, in particular, it is social interaction that helps keeps people alive.

 Some people, however, are improving away from, say, shocking working conditions. Students who are routinely bullied are enjoying life under lockdown. For many, COVID is a fabulous break from the drudgery and cruelty of their social routine (but let us not forget the unfortunate few whose home life is a hell and for whom COVID must be an inescapable, living nightmare).

Are we heading for what some members of the press are calling a ‘mental health tsunami’?  

Given that the zeitgeist is for self-disclosure and that people are encouraged and applauded for unloading, then yes, we may well be heading for a tsunami. Consequently, many will surf the wave and seek plaudits. The problem is not the wave itself but distinguishing emotional exhibitionism from the people in genuine difficulty.

What should employers be doing to ensure that their people have the best possible support when it comes to their mental health?   

Treat people like grown-ups and let them come to their own decisions. There are three keys to a great job and they cost nothing beyond an emotionally developed attitude. You grant people:

  • Autonomy in their own workspace.
  • The resources they need to do their job.
  • Trust them to crack on with things.

If you monitor staff, insist on standardised procedures, or if you interfere without invitation in somebody else’s space, you are without doubt failing; your management style is inescapably poor. The further you fall behind these requirements, the more mental health problems you are likely to inflict on your staff. This is the science; it is unopposed everywhere except in the business bubble. Please take note.

Do you have any tips for our readers when it comes to helping themselves deal with their own mental health? 

Yes. Remember the point on quackery (above). If it applies to company managers, it is umpteen times more important for readers. Pop stars, architects, management consultants, therapists with a diploma, nutritionists, sports people etc. are dangerously useless when it comes to tackling mental health issues. They know ***k all beyond their own biased, almost always untested experiences.

If you have a problem:

Step 1: Talk to those you trust, they know you best. They are usually all the help you need to come to your own conclusions.

Step 2: If needed, seek qualified help.

Step 3: There isn’t one.

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