MENTAL HEALTH DURING COVID-19: THE HR MANTLE

Shalinee Tripathi July 2020, News Letters

COVID-19 pandemic has confined millions of people across the globe to their homes and has posed a very strange situation for workplaces. In these tumultuous times, when normal life has been disrupted, the internet, as always, has come to our rescue. A recent article published by Google titled “What is India Searching for? Insights for Brands” analyses the most common Google searches made by Indians during the lockdown. These searches majorly revolve around learning new skills, how to stay healthy and increase your immunity, ways to kill boredom, finding essential amenities nearby, and other COVID-19 related queries. They reflect the various emotions and concerns this global public health crisis has given birth to and has created a mantle for HR as a practitioner to adorn.

Situational Malady -The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have affected people in multiple ways and a huge part of it involves the psychological tsunami that COVID-19 has brought with itself. The pandemic has also become the breeding ground of everything negative – depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness and thoughts of suicide. An article in the newspaper The Hindu describes how a mental health helpline in Mumbai received approximately 45,000 calls in the past two months.The callers represented people from various age groups and diverse backgrounds. The most prevalent symptoms reported were of depression and anxiety, typically about the future.Collective grief of this magnitude is something that the world has not experienced in the recent past. This collective grief is caused by the derailment of normal life. The precariousness of what the future holds and the open endedness of the current situation has aroused anticipatory grief. The temporary unemployment, economic recession, rising debts, and salary cuts have become triggers for severe mental breakdown for most.

Added to this, there is one additional disadvantage. For humans, the biggest psychological reserve to fight difficulties is the human touch – the connection with friends and family, the lack of which is severely apparent now. The disappearance of these social safety nets has made people helpless. Managing the fear of infection, adapting to the sudden lifestyle changes, and worrying about the safety of loved ones are challenging for all of us. In most cases, being confined to homes also poses the risk of alcohol abuse. Quarantine has led to an exceptional rise in online activities, which in turn creates the pressure to meet the standards set by social media. One of the major stress triggers for many people is working from home. With COVID-19 engulfing all aspects of work-life, companies now find themselves in uncharted territories. It is difficult to maintain the balance between work life and household responsibilities when you are working from home. This improvised working environment places additional demands and pressure on working professionals to learn new relevant skills just to adapt to this new situation. Working from home surrounded by family also reduces the motivation to work. There is the other side too, where technological and infrastructural challenges place constraints, leading to undue stress and anxiety. As communication has shifted to emails, phone calls and video calls, we tend to neglect the biggest risk involved – the absence of personal, face-to-face interaction and its impact on mental health. All this could make a person emotionally exhausted, leading to burnout and existential anxiety.

HR-The Supportive System

In such a situation, the role of HR gains overwhelming importance. The HR department plays a crucial role in managing the response to the crisis. Devdutt Pattanaik, a renowned Indian author, in his closing speech for #SAPHRConnect2020 in partnership with People Matters, referred to the HR community as Krishna. In the battle of the epic, The Mahabharata, Krishna becomes the guiding light in the battlefield who enables and motivates Arjuna to win the battle. The HR needs to take on a similar role in these unexpected times.

The HR department of an organization is required to be empathetic towards employee needs. Though we emphasize on the need to understand there is also a contrary situation of employees not reciprocating their accountability. Constant support and assurance can empower the employees to embrace the vulnerability and unpredictability of the situation. Continuous collaboration and engagement activities between managers and employees is vital. Sharing helpful tips on how to go through this period of remote work and videos on how to practice self- care can prove to be beneficial to the employees. The HR team should assist the creation of a culture that fosters optimism and hope; a culture that normalizes talking about emotions and feelings to foster mental health in the organization. This harrowing time can cause a decline in self-esteem and encourage negative emotions. Such a culture would help everyone to navigate through this crisis. The HR department can also compile and keep a list of counsellors and clinical psychologists ready, both online and otherwise, for the employees in case of emergency. Transparency in communication, policies and operations are essential information to be provided to the employees, realigning and revisiting the practices needs to be ensured. The power lies in the acceptance of the situation – we find control in acceptance. It is important to realize that it is okay to not be okay sometimes.