Coronavirus Quarantine: Dealing with the Psychological Impact on Employees

At the time of writing this article, we are on day 16 of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in India. The Union and state governments are contemplating various exit strategies, including gradual lifting of restrictions in districts with no Covid-19 positive cases, and identifying institutions & establishments (particularly those providing essential service) which can resume operations on after April 15 – the tentative date for easing restrictions. Some states have indicated that although corporate offices will be allowed to open, working remotely will be encouraged wherever feasible so that minimum employees need to leave their homes.

Various discussions have largely focused on the physical aspect of dealing with the aftermath of lifting lockdown restrictions. It is likely that companies will also focus on employees’ physical safety once lockdown restrictions are eased. Very few discussions are being held regarding the psychological impact of the lockdown and the restrictions it entails: self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing and working remotely.

A phrase frequently comes up in most discussions regarding Covid-19: new normal. What does new normal mean, and how will it impact businesses and their stakeholders, particularly employees? The latter are likely to be concerned about several uncertainties in a post-Covid-19 scenario and how these will impact their workplaces. During the lockdown, some companies have proactively engaged professional counselors to help their employees deal with the emotional trauma of staying away from their workplaces and practically from all manner of social contact with others. However, are companies equipped to deal with the longer-term psychological impact of quarantine?

Psychological impact of self-isolation and quarantine will linger long after the disease abates. Mental wellbeing of employees, which was already a challenge in India, will become a graver concern in future.

Companies have started acknowledging that a prolonged stint of working from home and being socially distant will lead to noticeable changes in employees’ behavior and personal choices. It is expected that attitudes towards health, food and nutrition will change drastically due to the significantly altered lifestyles during the quarantine period. In the weeks and months to come, most companies and employees will be navigating uncharted territory – the last time a disease was declared a pandemic was 50 years ago (Hong Kong Flu during 1968-70). And the world was a different place five decades ago than it is today.

Researchers from The Lancet recently undertook a rapid review of the psychological impact of quarantine by studying previously-published literature. Among a range of other things, the researchers identified some key pre- and post-quarantine stressors. Myriad observations noted across the studies highlighted that quarantine was linked with several outcomes, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), confusion, anger, emotional exhaustion, low mood, irritability, grief, guilt and anxiety-induced insomnia.

It was also observed that “many participants continued to engage in avoidance behaviors” even after quarantine had ended, and the return to normal behavior was delayed by several months.

For employees, in addition to the stressors mentioned above, the quarantine period has likely been marked by concerns related to job security, financial security and, most importantly, what the future is going to look like. Chronic stress and a fear of the unknown, especially if they persist for a prolonged duration, typically develop into long-lasting problems such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

In India, workplace stress is a primary cause of mental health issues among employees. In the context of Indian companies, mental health is often referred to as the elephant in the room – an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about. So while mental wellbeing of employees was already a challenge under normal circumstances, it is bound to become an even greater challenge in the post-coronavirus world. Employees who return to the workplace in a fragile frame of mind will be at greater risk of developing mental illnesses.

Employees with no prior experience of working remotely have found it difficult adjusting to an unstructured work environment and social isolation without physical contact with colleagues.

Lack of a structured work environment and social isolation can give rise to symptoms of depression and anxiety. This becomes a bigger concern for employees who are part of organizations which promote teamwork and foster a work culture where team members interact with each other frequently. Even under normal circumstances, loneliness and social isolation are harmful for health – various studies have been undertaken to understand their impact on people across age groups. Loneliness is damaging to both physical & mental health and has been associated with a higher risk of mortality. Social isolation adversely impacts the ability of people to deal with stressful situations.

Without a formal office ecosystem, employees may end up doubting their productivity or feel the pressure to constantly prove themselves. Unreasonable self-expectations and not knowing when to stop working will likely lead to emotional turmoil. For many employees, the quarantine period has imposed additional stressors regarding their job security. This may pressurize them to work extra hours or take on more workload than they can handle. Conversely, some employees may want to go the extra mile and try to ‘do more’. These situations will lead to work-life imbalance, chronic stress and burnout, which could be precursors to mental health issues.

Research has defined burnout as a condition which encompasses three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Burnout is linked to impaired emotional and physical health and a diminished sense of wellbeing.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions may experience a worsening of their symptoms during and after the quarantine period. An ugly outcome of the coronavirus crisis has also been the stigmatization of specific sections of the population.

While some people working from home or in isolation can experience temporary depression, anxiety or traumatic symptoms, for others it can be a longer-term challenge. If employees were already suffering from mental health issues before being quarantined, chances are that their symptoms will aggravate. In cases where emotional turmoil is the result of a domestic situation – such as living with an abusive partner or family member(s) – quarantining with such individual(s) can cause greater trauma which can lead to mental health issues.

An unwanted and ugly outcome of the coronavirus crisis has been the stigmatization of people from northeast India. Even in normal times, citizens from this part of the country face racism, violence and discrimination. Given that the coronavirus first emerged in China’s Wuhan, northeast Indians are becoming unwitting victims of Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment). They are being quarantined by force despite showing no symptoms, being shunned by restaurants and apartment complexes, and are being subject to racially-motivated verbal & physical abuse. The scars from these traumatic incidents may take several months to heal.

Planning for a new normal in the post-Covid-19 world is both a challenge and an opportunity. Companies have been presented with the chance of a lifetime to take a holistic view of their employees’ wellbeing, which includes both physical and mental health.

The world is currently grappling with a humanitarian and health crisis that is unprecedented in scale and intensity, and the consequences of which are still unclear. The psychological impact of such a major turn of events will, in all likelihood, be more pronounced. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Mandatory quarantining and working remotely has led to a significant shift in the way companies adopt technology to conduct businesses and engage with their stakeholders, including employees and clients. A similar shift is required in the way companies approach their employees’ wellbeing.

Work-life balance should not be a nice-to-have policy on paper; it should be implemented in letter and spirit. The coronavirus crisis has forced companies to offer remote working arrangements and deploy technology to communicate with employees and clients. Experts are predicting that work-from-home is going to be the future of work – this will benefit many employees who end up spending several hours on their daily commute. There is also reasonable optimism that companies will start taking a more compassionate view of their employees and encourage them to take leaves to rejuvenate and spend time with their loved ones.

Dealing with employees’ trauma and emotional turmoil is not going to be easy for companies since they are not internally equipped to manage the psychological impact of such an epic humanitarian and health crisis. The prolonged period of isolation will make it difficult for many individuals to readjust to a pre-quarantine routine once the situation begins to normalize. This may also cause stress, anxiety and mood swings.

Companies which had proactively engaged the services of counsellors to help employees working remotely should continue offering such services even after quarantine has ended. There is still a high level of stigma associated with mental health in India – companies should encourage conversations around such issues and motivate their employees to seek professional help to overcome emotional distress. The crisis has also presented an opportunity for companies to offer mental health insurance to their employees, similar to physical health insurance.

In its fight against the coronavirus, the government has roped in experts to offer tips to help people manage their mental health during quarantine. Companies must also take up this responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees not only during quarantine but even in the period following it. The availability of a host of online and offline resources has made it relatively easier to seek help in case individuals are experiencing symptoms of trauma or mental illnesses. Corporate India can take advantage of these resources to help employees who are struggling with the psychological impact of the coronavirus crisis.

I look forward to your feedback and suggestions on

Gautam Mehra

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