COVID-19: Mental health crisis needs more than assistance programs

Understanding the mental health toll of COVID

Reasonable workloads and a safe work environment are the most important mental health interventions for staff - not additional support programs.

Our essential frontline community workers, such as police, ambulance, and health staff, have kept our country going when most of us were home during lockdowns.

Research shows health workers and frontline workers carry very high levels of stress and burnout in normal times. Our research with workers from across Australia, including rural Australia, indicated disturbing levels of stress, depression, anxiety and burnout.

Further, it found the main causes of psychological distress were not COVID-19 itself, but the organisations' response to this crisis. As a result, if we don't act soon, we could see a mass resignation from these essential services.

The great resignation?

The way organisations responded to COVID-19 has damaged the wellbeing of many frontline staff. An alarming 52 per cent of respondents were burnt-out and depression and anxiety levels were 10 and four times the rate of the general population, respectively. Almost 30 per cent of our respondents were intending to quit in the next 12 months. If we lose these skilled frontline workers from essential public services, it will seriously diminish our communities.

To a hammer, everything looks like a nail

Why and how has this happened? Our media has been filled with predictions from our mental health experts about the looming mental health epidemic. While our mental health experts were right about this, they didn't propose a solution - only a psychological treatment. Simultaneously, for leaders seeking to protect the mental health of their staff, the prevailing advice on offer was "more mental health services". In this context, concerned managers arranged additional helplines, EAP support, and sent bulletins suggesting mindfulness, yoga, relaxation, self-care and resilience training.

For many staff, with massive increases in workload and fear of infection, these band-aid solutions were useless, unwelcome and infuriating. More white noise emails when they are flat-out working. Just providing additional mental health support is unhelpful because it distracts attention from the root causes of psychological distress in the workplace. It is also unhelpful and mildly insulting because suggesting a worker needs to relax, practice mindfulness and be more resilient, subtly blames the victim for a toxic work environment. This is not to suggest providing additional mental health supports is not important. But it is akin to providing more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, rather than constructing a fence at the top.

Best workplace mental health intervention is prevention

So, what does the research tell us are the major predictors of stress, depression, and burnout in the workplace? COVID-19 dramatically increased workload, fear of infection and created a rapidly changing and unpredictable work environment. This is what caused high levels of psychological distress, not the lack of EAP or psychologists. Overwork is the largest predictor of poor mental health of frontline workers. Other key predictors are poor communication, lack of training and support, and the failure of managers to listen and connect with the on-the-ground staff.

With almost 30 per cent of the frontline workforce indicating they are planning to quit, how can we best retrieve this situation? Listening and hearing the experiences of staff over the past 18 months would be a start, and then do something in response.

The risk is that post COVID-19, leaders will move on and focus on the next thing, failing to fully appreciate and learn from the harm COVID-19 brought to their staff. Leaders need to make this right immediately. Our essential services staff worked countless extra hours in service to the community. Private organisations have shown tangible appreciation (roadside assist) for essential workers. Governments provided Covid cash to businesses. They should likewise show appreciation and a tangible gesture of thanks to the dedicated essential service staff who went 'above and beyond' and suffered for us, during the COVID-19 crisis.

What are the lessons post-COVID?

There are important leadership lessons emerging from COVID-19 that should be applied post COVID-19. These include ensuring a reasonable workload, listening to staff, creating a safe and fair working environment, and providing adequate training and resources to equip staff to do their job effectively. These are the best and first things a manager should do to protect the mental health and workplace wellbeing of their staff. It's not rocket science, it is management 101.

The first responsibility of every manager is the occupational health and safety of their staff. Any manager who fails to ensure a safe and fair work environment with a reasonable workload is failing to address the causes of 90 per cent of the mental health problems in the workplace. Post COVID-19, our essential frontline workers deserve better.

  • Russell Roberts, Professor of leadership and management at Charles Sturt University and editor in chief of the Australian Journal of Rural Health.
This story Understanding the mental health toll of COVID first appeared on The Canberra Times.