Managing mental health as restrictions ease

While Australia has experienced relative success in flattening the coronavirus curve, several challenges remain as we enter the first phases of recovery.

As businesses start to reopen and we begin the crawl back to normality, psychologists say mental health concerns are persisting. Across the globe, people have experienced extreme upheaval. Ongoing questions about the virus, coupled with changes to routine have caused many to feel worried and uncertain, they say.

In other parts of the world, where outbreaks have been more widespread, there have been reports of PTSD upon the return to work.

Back home, Melbourne-based registered psychologist Donna Cameron says she has seen several clients without a history of anxiety reporting fear about returning to the workplace.

“I am finding as the number of active cases of COVID-19 reduce, the fears of getting sick are no longer the issues causing the anxiety,” she says.

Cameron says the home has become a bit of a safe space for some and there are many reasons the return to work is prompting a sense of panic.

“The issues now are more so about the social aspect of their job, actually having to communicate with other people, the leaving of their home as this has turned into a safe zone with minimal stressors for them.”

In addition, she says some clients are experiencing self-doubt about their ability to perform their role.

Getting through the transition

For those experiencing anxiety about the change in circumstances or the future, Ms Cameron says it’s important they recognise they are not alone, and the sensations are temporary.

She says feelings should be acknowledged and validated, not ignored.

“Anxiety is just our bodies warning system searching for danger, so [people should] reinforce to themselves that they are safe and that they will be OK,” she says.

Other guidelines for coping with stressful periods include communicating concerns to colleagues and managers, maintaining a routine – even if it looks different to the pre-COVID one – and getting physical activity.

Providing support for others

Advisers may find themselves in a position where they have to find support for others as well, whether it be redirecting clients to other professionals or supporting staff.

Clear communication about what has changed, including where people can seek help, is important.

However, the Australian Psychological Society says, “broad statements such as ‘things will never go back to the way they were’ and ‘our work will never be the same again’ may be alarming for employees, particularly when these statements are not qualified in any way”.

Instead, it says businesses should be clear about what is and isn’t changing and how future changes will be communicated.

“Your staff will be counting on you to look after them – the tone of communications should convey a sense of concern and support,” it says.

NSW Government agency icare has released a series of recommendations to help businesses support employees they return to work. The guidelines are based an academic review of what’s worked in the past 100 years of pandemics and epidemics.

“Good leadership, consistent and clear communication and best practice support is integral to workplace reintegration and employee health and wellbeing,” the icare report says.

The review found the perception of poor support from employers can create uncertainty and “erode trust in the employer”.

“It is recommended that employers make every possible effort to demonstrate the workplace environment is safe to ensure employee safety and reduce employee risk perception.”

* Those experiencing distress can always seek personal advice and support.

Help is available via Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; beyondblue 1300 224 636.

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