Emotional reaction to COVID-19 akin to grief for many employees, says RedArc

World Mental Health Day: 10 October 2020

 Having provided mental health support to employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, RedArc believes that many people are experiencing some of the same emotional reactions to their circumstances as they might during bereavement. The organisation has witnessed employees at various stages of denial, anger, bargaining depression and acceptance, as set out in Kubler-Ross’s Grief cycle, a theory widely accepted by therapists.

Employers that recognise this is what employees are going through, are better positioned to know how to support their staff – especially as the coronavirus crisis is more prolonged than most people expected.

Christine Husbands, managing director for RedArc commented: “It’s been called the ‘new norm’ but if we’re honest, there’s very little that’s normal about the world we’re currently living in, and that is putting a huge strain on many employees. People are experiencing feelings similar to grief: mourning the life they once had, the family they can’t see, the social lives they miss, the adventures and holidays they can’t plan. Add to this the strain of lockdown on family life, and adapting to a new way of working, and it’s clear to see why many people are experiencing some of the same emotions as they do when coping with a significant loss.”

How these five stages manifest themselves

RedArc stresses that, the five stages are not a straightforward route-map to dealing with the emotions caused by COVID-19 and not everyone will necessarily journey through each one in order. However, knowing that these feelings are normal can be a relief and help some people to cope better.

  • Many people initially experienced denial as they thought the virus wouldn’t affect them or their family or their workplace, and that life could and should carry on as usual.
  • Anger ensued as people were annoyed about dealing with change foisted upon them such as having to home-school their children, cancel foreign holidays, being unable to visit family and friends and experience a prolonged period of working from home or unable to work at all.
  • Some people looked to take back control or tried in vain to influence the spread of COVID-19 by bargaining with the situation they find themselves in, eg. “If I isolate more strictly, things will get better” or, “If the virus stops spreading, I’m going to lead a more active lifestyle from now on.”
  • As the initial panic around the virus subsides and employees start to face the reality of their situation, depression can set in which can lead to people retreating from everyday life and becoming more introverted.
  • Eventually the aim is that people will arrive in a place of acceptance where emotions are less heightened and they feel less pain. There can still be great sadness but they are not struggling to change the situation or get back to how things were.

As restrictions change, locally and nationally as well as a very clear message the virus will continue to restrict our lives for many months if not years, this can cause a return to previous emotions to be worked through again.

Professional support required for more extreme emotional reactions

Most employees will arrive at the acceptance stage on their own but for some, COVID-19 will have triggered a more intense emotional reaction. Where a mental health issue is suspected, employers should always refer employees on to specialist mental health support, as early intervention is key in tackling anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. This support is often available as a free value-add within group protection policies as well as via trade unions, affinity groups and membership organisations.

 Christine Husbands continued: “Many employees feel a loss of control, status and motivation by not being in a normal working routine in the workplace. This, combined with a reduction in social interaction, and less of a sense of a working community, can leave some people unable to cope, which can then spiral into mental health issues if not kept in check.

“By being aware that employees could be grieving for a pre-COVID-19 world, and by having an understanding that this can be a catalyst for a range of emotions, employers are better equipped to support staff during these difficult times.”