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Mental health and wellbeing, resilience and the pandemic

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Mental health and wellbeing, resilience and the pandemic

Since the pandemic started, global mental health has declined significantly. Alongside the stresses caused by chronic uncertainty, isolation and grief, rising unemployment has contributed to a drop in mental wellbeing in populations around the world.

Here, we examine how mental health has changed as a result of the coronavirus, how this converges with experiences of unemployment, and what jobseekers and employers can do to safeguard themselves and others.

How global mental health has declined

Scientists around the world have been tracking the alarming increase in mental health issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For those with pre-existing conditions, the pressures and constrictions brought about by Covid-19 has exacerbated their symptoms. And for many others who had not previously suffered from mental ill health, the pandemic has caused them to experience disorders including anxiety and depression.

In the US, according to KFF, a non-profit organisation focusing on national health issues, four in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, compared to one in 10 in 2019. The foundation also reported high percentages of adults experiencing specific symptoms, including trouble sleeping (36%) and an increase in alcohol consumption and substance misuse (12%), all of which have a negative impact upon mental health and wellbeing. Even more alarmingly, according to US census bureau data, more than 42% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, up from just 11% the previous year. Similarly, UK surveys show the percentage of adults reporting symptoms of mental ill health increased from 10 to 19% between 2019 and 2020. 

A research paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly reports that the “increased mental health burden associated with the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be profound and felt for many years”. The paper explains: “Restrictive measures put in place during the pandemic coupled with, for example, loneliness, job and income loss, bereavement, and the direct or indirect impacts of Covid-19 have led to increased levels of anxiety and had a negative effect on many people’s mental health.” It also recognised “emerging” evidence that the mental health of young people in particular had been “disproportionately affected”.

Similarly, The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK has highlighted a sharp rise in mental ill health, saying record numbers of adults and children have sought help for problems including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health think tank, has said that about 10 million people will need help with mental ill health relating to the pandemic, including 1.5 million children.

Rising unemployment: compounding the mental health challenge

The Northern Ireland Assembly highlights unemployment as one of the contributing factors to pandemic-related mental ill health. In fact, experts seem mainly to agree with Mental Health UK, which states that employment is one of the strongest determinants of mental health: “Lack of access to either employment or good-quality employment can decrease quality of life, social status, self-esteem and achievement of life goals.” The Assembly’s 2017 survey found that: “twice as many unemployed people (25.85%) surveyed say they are not coping well with the stress of the pandemic compared to people in employment (12.25%)”, and “over one in 10 (10.93%) unemployed people surveyed say nothing has helped them cope with the stress of the pandemic.” Furthermore, “28% of people who identified as unemployed reported current experience of negative mental health, compared to 13% of people in paid employment, 20% of people in full-time education and only 9% of people who had retired.”

There are many reasons why unemployment can have a significant negative impact on mental wellbeing. The lack of certainty or security, a drop in living standards, a loss of a sense of purposefulness and an inability to provide for dependents are just some side-effects associated with job loss. Research shows that the groups most affected by Covid-19-related unemployment – including young people, frontline workers and people of colour – are also the most likely to report a decline in their mental health. The Institute for Fiscal Studies cites Joyce and Xu’s 2020 study: “evidence is already emerging that the economic repercussions of the crisis are falling disproportionately on young workers, low-income families and women”. While the KFF in the US similarly reports that: “populations that were particularly at risk for experiencing negative mental health or substance abuse consequences during the pandemic, includ[e] young adults, people experiencing job loss, parents and children, communities of color, and essential workers.”

The data shows how mental health and wellbeing are inextricably linked with employment and the types of work that workers have access to. In order to tackle the rise in mental ill health in the UK and globally, we need also to solve the crisis in unemployment that has been caused by the pandemic, and build towards a better future of work.

Unemployment and mental ill health: key trigger points

It can be helpful to understand the moments in the unemployment journey that are most likely to produce additional strain, and to exacerbate or cause mental health challenges.

Experiencing job loss can produce shock. Psychologists tend to agree on the stages that someone will experience as they process and adjust to shock. During the initial stages of unemployment, shock can manifest as optimism and lead to a flurry of positive job-search activity. As time goes on, if no positive leads are found, pessimism can set in, can become active distress and can eventually leave a person feeling fatalistic. If you cannot see how your own agency will impact your job search, then it will be impossible to motivate yourself to search and apply for work, or to present yourself well in an interview, leading to fewer – or no – positive results. Ultimately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With this in mind, it is important to work hard during the early stages of unemployment to maintain optimism, recognise opportunities, be open to a change of industry or career, and to identify skills, particularly transferable ones.

The severity of the symptoms of mental ill health experienced during periods of unemployment will be affected by several factors. One is the length of the period of unemployment. Prolonged job searches, combined with repeated rejection or lack of responses to submitted applications, can exacerbate mental ill health. Mental health deterioration will also be impacted by the level of responsibility shouldered by the person who has become unemployed. For example, if they have children or other dependants to provide for, or have financially demanding mortgage payments to maintain, the impact on their mental health will be greater and the worry they experience will be more acute than, say, that experienced by a single person living in a rented flatshare.

During this heightened period of competition for work, the impact of job loss will also be affected by the industry and role in which the jobseeker had been employed. The convergence of the pandemic with the changing nature of work and rise of automation, means many newly unemployed workers will struggle to see a future career in a familiar industry. Changing careers, particularly later in life, can boost feelings of anxiety, be overwhelming and cause active distress. Yet optimism and confidence are essential characteristics to secure work – if a jobseeker cannot convince themselves they should be employed, they cannot expect an employer to recognise their potential. Thankfully, there are some practical steps jobseekers can follow to help them to manage the impact of job loss on their wellbeing, and to maintain positivity in their job search.

Practising resilience: tips and tricks for jobseekers

Resilience is the ability to cope with unforeseen events, such as job loss, and to recover quickly. Resilient jobseekers are those who can withstand rejection, remain optimistic and do not succumb to despair. Some people are naturally more optimistic and resilient. However, there are ways to practise resilience that can help jobseekers maintain higher levels of mental health and wellbeing.

To recognise opportunity in the face of an uncertain economic outlook, it can help jobseekers to widen their usual search in order to see the breadth of roles that are available. While many industries might be struggling, new businesses and roles are emerging to address changing consumer needs and lifestyles, and to support the new future of work. One way to do this is to list all possible roles that a jobseeker can see themselves fitting into, such as project manager, communications manager, community manager and so on. Then, search available job roles without filtering for industry. This will give the jobseeker a sense of the breadth of possible jobs they could do, and provide some inspiration for different industries they could consider in their job search. To support this approach, it can also be helpful to list key skills, highlighting those that can be applied to another industry. While previous experience may feel incredibly specific – such as the job of a mechanic – there will be elements of every role that can be applied elsewhere. The ability to manage deadlines, communicate clearly and offer good customer service, for example, are skills that can be transferred from this role to many others.

Another approach is to recognise that while your dream job might not be available right now, you can take steps towards it. This is particularly relevant for graduates emerging into a difficult job market. Finding a job that will build the skills that will help you to eventually acquire your dream job is a productive way to remain optimistic while not losing sight of your ultimate goal.

Finally, to remain resilient it is essential to take a break. No one can seek work seven days a week, and it is certainly true that quality is much more important than quantity when it comes to job applications. Taking care of yourself by doing something that brings you joy each day, giving yourself weekends off and perhaps using some of your extra time to learn a new skill, will nourish your mental health and give you the fortitude needed to maintain optimism and keep searching.

Employer responsibility for mental health

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees. This should also be extended to candidates they encounter during the recruitment process.

Mental Health UK notes that: “The value added to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high as £225 billion per year, which represents 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP.” And 86% of their survey respondents believed that their job and being at work was important for protecting and maintaining their mental health. So aside from their duty of care, which is enshrined in law, there is an economic imperative for companies to ensure that their workers are supported to maintain good mental health.

While Covid-19 assessments, safety at work and stress risk assessments are legal requirements, companies do not currently have a legal imperative to conduct mental health and wellbeing assessments. However, doing so would be a valuable step to ensuring that all employees are able to thrive at work. Employers should also recognise that the mental health and wellbeing support packages that they offer are an increasingly important factor for jobseekers determining where they would like to work.

In the recruitment process, employers should treat candidates with respect and kindness. Simple measures that are easy to implement, such as an automated thank-you for received job applications, including a note for candidates on when they should expect to hear back, as well as a response to all unsuccessful applicants (surprisingly rare – so many companies just ignore all but the shortlisted candidates) will go a long way to helping jobseekers maintain resilience while searching for work. This will also ensure that they continue to hold the company in high regard. Considerately written and detailed feedback for unsuccessful candidates can boost confidence and support them to go on to success. While none of these are requirements, companies that hope to have a positive impact should consider taking these and other similar measures.

Finally, the world of work is changing. Good work – not just any work – has been identified as key to supporting mental health and wellbeing. Employers should be conscious of the impact policies that they put in place, such as flexible working, can have on the health of their employees, and should seek to build a positive culture around wellbeing. This approach will enable businesses to attract and retain top talent.

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