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Using COVID-19 as an opportunity to re-evaluate mental health and wellbeing in the workplace: An Interview with Peter Kelly

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Peter Kelly, a senior psychologist with more than 20 years of working in the field of workplace stress with the HSE. With his experience spanning three decades, and being at the forefront of helping raise awareness of work-related stress and the mental health and wellbeing issues that emerge as a result, he has been supporting people and businesses through the difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We had a fantastic conversation around all things related to workplace stress, but Peter Kelly was keen to emphasise that while the pandemic has been a tragedy for many, we also have an opportunity here to shift attitudes and raise more awareness of work-related stress and the mental health issues that surround it as a result. 

What are the major impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing that you’re seeing right away as a result of the pandemic and everything that entails?

“Mainly what I’m seeing now is high levels of depression and anxiety, and that’s coming across in the conversations you have with people. Combine the recession with a pandemic and you have the perfect storm for something that your mental health is going to be impacted by. When we consider that mental health is impacted by recession, as we saw in 2008, and we know that mental health is impacted by pandemics and global uncertainty, when you put these things altogether, it’s obvious that these issues are happening.

There is potentially a pandemic of mental illness that will be coming our way. But it’s something that we can prevent and it’s something that we should prevent. We can look at how we support people, how do we give people a sense of control over their work environment, how to help them to understand their new role in this new world. 

Relationships have also taken a huge shift, particularly work relationships, so we need to help people understand their role now – being stuck behind a screen and not engaging with people. How do you have informal relationships in a digitalized world? It’s a really difficult thing for it not to feel staged or like a meeting but we can help people manage the change – it’s important that we do to help support and protect their mental health and wellbeing.”

You mention work relationships changing here, how can teams who are remote, or split between remote and on-site, continue to have good relationships when their experiences are so different, and often isolating, in varied ways?

“Obviously, we all hope that some people, most people, will have a core group of friends or family that they engage with outside of the context of work to get that social contact we all need. Of course, some of us use our work colleagues to have informal social gatherings and these kinds of relationships, which will have been the most impacted by the pandemic. 

With everyone using things like Zoom, often for more ‘formal’ things like meetings, I always say to people when you want to do an informal one, whether it’s coffee or drinks or whatever, then make this part of a communication routine and it immediately changes the tone of the relationship and engagement. It helps to ensure that time is given over to this “social engagement” in addition to work-related meetings and is beneficial in improving mental health and wellbeing. This is critically important as we come to terms with the new normality of COVID-19. 

We are not all working from home, and there are many people who have to go to work and have to interact on a daily basis because of the nature of their jobs. So you’ve got people who do Zoom and are having this digital experience, and there are other people who are actually going out, doing a job, and having to work through the pandemic. And they both have similar needs, in that there is this sense of isolation, not knowing when we’re going to get through this, not knowing what’s coming next. I think it’s really important to look at both groups and realise that they have very genuine needs, and sometimes very different needs, when it comes to their relationships and social interactions.

Somebody who’s isolated for three months will perhaps struggle when they go back to work. Someone that has worked through the pandemic has had a very different experience. Both are completely valid and both will be experiencing difficulties in maintaining those important relationships and social interactions that we need to stay healthy. We need to make sure that people feel supported and validated in their experiences no matter what they are.” 

Would you say that the pandemic has provided us with a unique opportunity to shake up how we see and address mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?

“I think there’s a unique opportunity here to really re-evaluate how we look at safety and health together, especially when it comes to things like COVID-19 compliance. You can put the physical measures in that you need, but you also need to look at the psychological support within a workplace that allows a person to feel under control, supported, clear in what their role is, understanding what the changes are, why they are like this, and how they can continue to access support, particularly for their work role and their mental health and wellbeing – their psychological safety if you will. 

To make this all work, more than ever, we need to look at people’s psychological health, and do something to promote that and help people understand what it means to be psychologically healthy. Traditionally we have a habit of waiting until people are truly ill, perhaps signed off with stress or mental ill-health, before we act; it’s too late then. We don’t have the luxury of doing that, to think ‘this is never going to happen again’, because it will happen again and it is starting to already. We’ve got to learn lessons from six months ago and start putting in place practical mechanisms and approaches that will support everyone through this difficult time.” 

To find out more about Peter Kelly’s work, you can contact him via LinkedIn

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