For most, the COVID-19 pandemic proves as a time of uncertainty and upheaval in ones personal capacity and workplace.

In this time there is great focus and emphasis on the somatic symptoms that may appear individual’s are feeling unwell. However it is also important to recognize that this is a time crisis and emotional trauma which can lead to mental health difficulties for many. A pandemic such as Corona virus is considered a global crisis affecting billions of people and can be traumatizing both in an indirect and direct way. Such psychological trauma of Covid-19 violates the familiar ideas and expectations of the world that the individual and society once knew causing a state of extreme uncertainty and confusion.

A collective traumatic event to this magnitude can cause impairment in ones ability to cope and grasp the concept of what is happening around us. Eliciting mental health challenges like grief, sadness, fear, panic, hopelessness, anxiety and depression. The body perceives the COVID-19 virus and any risk factors associated as dangerous. In response to danger the body’s natural reaction to danger is induced, this being the fight-flight-freeze response, as first described by Psychologist Walter Bradford Cannon, which is a type of stress response with instant psychological and physiological changes in the body. South Africa entered a nation-wide lockdown on 26 March 2020, this act by government in the interest of the population’s health, safety and an attempt to “flatten the curve”. This act solidified the perceived threat of the COVID-19 virus as a real and immediate to the health of all South Africans.

Lockdown as a result of COVID-19 can be felt as overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children, activating the body’s stress response in the body and brain.

Fear and anxiety are two of the trends in mental health difficulties seen in adults and children. Both because of the fear of catching the virus and the uncertainty of how the outbreak will affect our lives (and loved ones) socially and economically. Those in the frontline who are our societies “essential workers” are the forefront of the battle, for these individuals’ feelings of burn-out, stress, anxiety, covid-19 trauma and somatic issues come in waves. Since working at a grocery store, in a hospital, clinic or as part of delivery services means that the employee cannot avoid all contact with others as a result of the nature of their work.

It is also most likely that the workload for essential workers in the front line has dramatically increased. This can cause a preoccupation with job responsibilities, and in intern a lack of self-care related activities, erratic eating habits, and other somatic concerns. All related to stress and Covid-19 trauma, such as a racing heart, dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking, and sweating. It is also common to experience psychological symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts, worry, trouble focusing, bouts of crying, irritability, anger and a lack of satisfaction during this time.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis which the individual does not have control over, this lack of control and uncertainty can lead to a negative impact on work productivity and performance. Proving the contributing psychological and physiological challenges as seen above. Employees battling with these challenges display higher levels of absenteeism, lower engagement, more prone to conflict situations in the workplace, issues with time management and are generally less productive than their counterparts who are coping with/managing their stress.

Statistics show that some employees may be motivated by working under pressure (stress), but for a vast majority of workers there is a direct correlation with a drop in productivity. This is because stressors can cause employees to loose office time from a reduction in cognitive capacity. Occurring when they are preoccupied by their worries and anxieties which may also have a negative impact on the quality of work causing presenteeism; and increase the number of sick days needed to be taken. Dealing with Covid-19 trauma reactions caused by the outbreak can improve your general health, quality of life and wellbeing.

As an employee, in such instances where your health and wellbeing are challenged in this time with Covid-19 trauma. There are steps to take to assist you in coping, if your company does not have a structured Employee Assistance Program (EAP) :

Increase your sense of safety

To allow for a reduction in anxiety experts suggest that replacing behaviors with healthy actions that make you feel safer can be beneficial. This includes keeping to good hygiene habits at home and in the workplace to limit the risk of infection.

Cultivate ways to be more calm

Instead of feeling guilt/ shame for your emotions of fear, anxiety and stress caused by Covid-19 trauma, accept that it is normal. It can be difficult to process strong emotions such as these especially when many aspects of life are being affected. While the current circumstances may be understandably stressful and, in many ways, out of your control, you can try and offset these thoughts and feelings with calming and positive activities. One such activity is practicing deep breathing exercises such as the 4-7-8 technique which allows for the body to enter a state of relaxation when feeling anxiety and stress stricken.

It is also helpful to pay attention to hobbies (self-care) that you find calming such as yoga or gardening, listening to music, and exercising are also examples of helpful positive practices for calming one’s self. In reducing stress about current affairs COVID-related, it is useful to limit exposure to outlets like news and social media, especially before bed as this will aid in a more restful sleep and being able to approach the next day with a clear and rested body and mind.

Stay connected

In a time where social distancing is becoming a new norm, it is vital to stay connected with and reach out to friends, family, mentors, as well as those who may be going through similar circumstances as yourself. Bonding on a shared experience with others may provide relief from feelings of isolation in ones situation. If you previously enjoyed socializing with those around you, one way of feeling connected is by getting creative in accessing support via video call, telephone and email.

Improve your sense of control and ability to endure whilst building resilience

In improving your own sense of control, part of the process is coming to terms with circumstances that cannot be changed, and focus on what you can alter in what with regard to what you are in control of. This decision involves being mindful of your own thoughts, actions, and behavior, all of which you are in control of and can influence to help you focus on the positive. During this pandemic, the definition of what we considered a “good day” at work has changed in order to meet the reality of the situation. In being aware of this reality and having the ability to celebrate small victories is a good step towards mental wellness. Being kind and patient with yourself allows the body and mind to adjust as time goes during lockdown.

In a time, rife with negativity, attempt to practice some positive self-talk and gratitude for your employment, remind yourself of your purpose in this position. Reflect of your journey and accomplishments whilst realising the importance of your vital role in society. And lastly, evaluate the risks of contacting the COVID-19 virus whilst recognising the benefits of accepting a certain level of risk (for which each and every individual is at risk for to some degree). This will allow you to maintain as close to your normal routine as possible.

Working from home and productivity

If you have the benefit to be able to work from home during lockdown, this can increase your sense of safety. However studies have shown that working from home during COVID-19 can have a negative influence on your productivity. Working at an optimum level during a pandemic requires modification to the traditional workday, and blending the responsibilities from two of the major areas in our lives; work and home. This can be increasingly difficult for many considering factors in which the Coronavirus can be a distraction in direct and indirect ways in society.

For daily productivity to be maintained, having a daily schedule is vital in that it can be a defense against symptoms of Covid-19 trauma, depression, anxiety/stress and can increase energy levels. This can be done in the morning, by actively constructing the course of your day and thinking of the tasks you need to accomplish, this guild to your actions allows for a sense of accomplishment by days end (modifying what a “good day looks like”). When working from home one should be aware of one’s limits to productivity as vices are now more accessible than ever. Holing yourself accountable and remaining disciplined as you would in the office is important to be mindful of.

In keeping your routine as close as possible to your work day at the office, this can also include subtle changes like wearing clothes that you would wear to be active and not pajamas at the start of your workday. When routines are disrupted, neurological systems shift, resulting in an imbalance. Leading to slow cognitive performance, lethargy, depression, anxiety, and ultimately a decline in productivity, thus staying consistent with routine is essential.

It can be a battle to separate work and home, this can be managed by creating a separation between work related activities and those that are not. Both in a mental sense and physical sense to allow ones self to be free from distraction. An activity of separation can be in the form of having a designated work space which would allow you to focus on a productive workday and “leave” the office at the end of the day. To stay motivated, one would need to set boundaries in your “office space” in terms of controlling the amount of time you are not active.

Remain hopeful

Consider this stressful time in a broader context and try to keep a future oriented mindset and long-term perspective. Acknowledge your feelings for what they are, but in addition to seeing them as an opportunity for growth and mastery in a personal and professional sense. In the process of remaining hopeful, celebrate your successes even in small ways and draw upon that which inspires you. Remember your individual beliefs and values to your purpose and commitment in a personal and professional sense to keep you closely aligned with your goals amidst change. If you still find yourself struggling to cope, help is available from trained mental health practitioners who are easily accessible through online support and toll-free helplines like SADAG, equip with professionals who are committed to assisting individuals experiencing difficulty.

by Jenine Budhai-Sookraj, HPCSA Certified Registered Counsellor, Company Wellness Solutions.