How will the history books depict the early 2020’s? The words “global pandemic, Coronavirus, social-distancing, isolation, lock-down and COVID-19” will undoubtedly dominate the pages but will this period also be depicted as the critical stage in evolution when human behaviour, psychology and mental health irretrievably changed?
Perhaps that question can be answered with another: What are the long-term behavioural and social implications of prolonged exposure to fear induced by media, misinformation, restrictions on freedoms and uncertainty in living and working conditions?
We know what they are in the short term; adults reporting symptoms of insomnia, stress, anxiety and depression have dramatically risen, with sharp rises also experienced in alcohol dependence, substance abuse, self-harm and domestic violence. Data from Kids Helpline confirmed that attempted suicide rates among Victorian teenagers is up by 184% and demand amongst adults for crisis/ support organisations and online mental health information services is at an all-time high.
The long-term implications can and will be measured by looking at how the current 15 to 24-year old population (who are said to be suffering the most during this period), will come to rely on the health system, mental health services and conduct themselves 10-20 years from now – by which time they will be the predominant workforce.
You can see why this age group is struggling the most; at a time when dramatic biological, behavioural and social changes are taking place, in addition to rapid physical growth, sexual maturation and emotional changes, it is a critical right of passage to physically and socially interact with people, it’s how we grow and learn about the world around us.
When this is restrained on a global scale there are massive generational psychological implications that will ensue and impact human development, mental wellbeing and social behaviour, the likes of which we have yet to see.
We know that prolonged exposure to stress and uncertainty is linked to changes and volume reduction in certain brain areas, in addition to a range of depressive disorders that result in cognitive, emotional and behavioural dysfunctions, not to mention the degenerative effect it has on the body and immune system.
So, despite the conditions we’re facing being largely outside out control, is there any action that we could we be taking now to minimise these long-term implications?
It is absolutely fundamental that primary, secondary and tertiary institutions educate their cohorts about self-awareness, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and cognitive behavioural principles and techniques that can be harnessed to address mental wellbeing concerns.
An emphasis on experiential and tactile learning, in addition to social intelligence and interpersonal skills should also form a crucial part of this curriculum in order to facilitate healthy human interaction and connection that transcends digital devices and interacting from behind a screen.
In the Workplace
There’s no question that the pandemic has had a crippling effect on the global economy with many employers having to cease operations or accept a significant decline in business activity and revenue – this leaving many employees either out of work or concerned for their job security.
Working from home has become the new norm across professional services and consequently, we’ve had to change and adapt to digital interactions with the line between work and home/family life becoming significantly blurred and further adding to the compounding effect of stress and uncertainty.
Here a few things that employers can do to minimise stress and uncertainty for their employees: -
Understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators for your staff to give effect to an employment experience that is favourable and correlates with job satisfaction and positive performance outcomes:
Intrinsic motivation at work is driven by psychological safety needs that involve a sense of connection with others, capability and independence, that are reinforced by the emotions that arise while engaging in specific job activities.
Extrinsic motivation rewards behaviour in the form of incentives such as financial, recognition, praise, promotion and external enticements. This can be a powerful motivator when matched with individual values, goals and experiences.
It’s essential that employers have this understanding of their employees’ motivations, as positive performance is an outcome of subjective feelings of mental wellbeing and being supported and understood in the workplace.
Stay connected to your management and team by scheduling routine virtual meetings and communicate boundaries between work and home time:
Regular meetings with staff who are working from home are essential because the spontaneous communication encounters that encouraged social connection, positive relationships and helped to maintain a healthy organisational culture have become obsolete.
Checking in with staff (even when meetings aren’t scheduled) will help to make staff feel as though they aren’t isolated and have a mechanism to debrief or convey concerns. Boundaries around work, breaks and home times also need to be communicated and reinforced to maintain structure and mental wellbeing.
Offering virtual team building initiatives where staff can come together to have fun and talk about life outside work is another great way to stay connected, especially when it comes to maintaining communication and organisational culture, otherwise strengthened during Friday drinks or out-of-work activities.
Providing mental wellbeing, mindset & performance group training and coaching is recommended where possible in order to ensure that staff have access to evidence-based resources and tools that can be leveraged to create and sustain a healthy mindset and ability to regulate emotions and workplace weariness.
The Open Mind Institute has seen quantified improvement achieved across areas of self-awareness, mental wellbeing, ability to harness a growth mindset and overall performance after professional services staff have completed its 10-week Mindset & Performance Workplace Program.
Topics covered in the program that have been instrumental in achieving this improvement include emotional and social intelligence, raising self-awareness through mindfulness and attention control techniques, cognitive behavioural therapy modalities, critical thinking and cognitive reframing.
In summary, the human behavioural and psychological aftermath of this global pandemic can be curtailed by our efforts today. Educational institutions and employers have an ethical responsibility to educate their students and people about ways their mental wellbeing, mindset and performance can be managed.
If this doesn’t occur at an exponential rate and soon, the detrimental impact on our mental health, interconnectedness and behaviour will far supersede that of any economic ramifications.
The Open Mind Institute.
 The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication, Agnese Mariotti, 2015 (3) FSO23: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137920/