• Helen Butler

Could the Pandemic Improve Mental Health in the Workplace?


When COVID-19 appeared on the global stage, a lot of people hoped it would be an insignificant bump in the road. Infections would plateau and fall, and things would get back to normal before we knew it. But as 2020 begins to wind down, uncertainty feels like a way of life. How long will the current lockdown last? What will the numbers look like next week? How will changing fortunes in different geographical areas influence the global economy – and how will my business (or my job, or my employees) be affected in turn?

Given the pesky nature of the virus, and the logistical challenges of containment, it’s no wonder the subject of mental health is increasingly relevant to the business world. Legions of employees and managers – many of whom have no prior experience with remote work – have been asked to be productive in quarantine. On top of that, the list of personal and household challenges is long. The idea that workplace dynamics and mental wellbeing can somehow remain separate is losing traction.

Finding a semblance of control

Dr Michelle Lim, a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at Swinburne University of Technology, points out that one of the most upsetting things about COVID-19 is the feeling that “you don’t have any control over your own circumstances.”

“In reality,” Dr Lim says, “lots of things have been taken away from us. But…we could gain some sense of control by thinking about what we can do, as opposed to what’s been taken away.”

For many people, spending more time with family members, or members of the household, is a way to regain a sense of control as the pandemic continues to play out. How can we improve the quality of our personal and family relationships? How can we sharpen our understanding of those relationships, and their importance to the structure and stability of our everyday lives? These are questions Dr Lim and others remind us to ask. In being attentive to the various relationships and dynamics that remain active in our lives, we can do the work of improving (and sustaining) our mental wellbeing – from the ground up.

Drawing parallels to business

Of course, taking better care of personal relationships has implications far beyond the home. There was a window of time around 2012 when businesspeople – and business publications – caught on to this idea. LinkedIn published an article titled “Why All Business is Personal.” Business Insider: “Why Business is Personal and Relationships Matter.” Forbes: “Business IS Personal.”

All of these articles express variations on a common theme: Personal relationships are at the heart of success – whether you’re talking about the individual, the organisation, or even the industry.

Does this mean the workplace should become a de facto therapy clinic? Obviously not. To say there are no boundaries between personal and professional life is extreme, even for the most progressive manager. However, during these unprecedented times, greater attention to mental health in the workplace is entirely called for. Not only is it relevant to the moment – it has the potential to create a meaningful long-term shift in the way organisations work.

Discovering new pathways to success

A loss of control is something we all feel with the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 – no matter what industry we’re a part of, and no matter what role we play in a given organisation. In a situation like this, personal challenges can’t always be filed in a different category. But if we focus on opportunities the pandemic gives us, as opposed to dwelling exclusively on what it takes away, we can find ourselves in a better position to succeed in personal and professional life.


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