COVID-19 has overturned our norms of life, and we are facing a Mental Health Crisis

The impact of COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 has taken the world by surprise. The global coronavirus pandemic has been a traumatic experience for us all, and has completely overturned our norms of life. For Australians, the bushfire catastrophe seems like a distant memory as the coronavirus pandemic sends our community into a state of fear and anxiety, and our economy into shock. 

Yet, like many, we are concerned about the emotional and economic impact this crisis has had on us, especially with experiencing loss of life, loss of jobs, close of businesses, rapid changes to our way of life, social distancing, global economic downturn and the continuous increase in mental health. As the number of coronavirus cases rose across Australia, the level of anxiety and stress within our communities increased. Naturally, we are all concerned about our health and safety, but there is still much uncertainty, and the reality of the pandemic is still in early days. We can expect more rules and changes to our way of life in the coming months and years, and it will continue to be long-term and painful.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Australian government unveiled an economic package to provide aid to businesses and help keep 6 million people in jobs. The economic impact of the Covid-19 health crisis has also led to skyrocketing unemployment, with 1 million Australians unemployed within a week and set to increase. It is devastating, as the economy once dubbed the “wonder down under” is rapidly slipping away. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated for many young and old, 2020 will be the toughest year of our lives.’ Most of us have complied with the rules placed by our government, but the sudden changes to try slow down the spread of this virus with the restrictive measures has induced a considerable amount of fear, worry and panic.

While physical distancing is helping to prevent us from contracting coronavirus, COVID-19 is taking an immeasurable toll on mental health due to numerous factors such as social isolation, financial and healthcare worries, strain of adapting to remote work, home schooling, care for children and elderly. It has also created problems with loneliness, depression, alcohol and drug use, suicide and anxiety. With the loss of face-to-face contact with family and friends, studies show 1 in 10 Australian adults reporting feelings of depression. Children also faced an enormous disruption to their lives, as they were restricted to their homes. As schools closed, the impact of online learning, the sudden split from friends and the disruption of their usual leisure and sport activities. The disruption of routine is especially difficult for young children, who take great comfort in consistency. For many parents working remotely from home, made working time and private time very difficult, due to children distractions and increase in stress.

Loneliness was the most widely reported source of personal stress for Australians during April, according to the third ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey. It reported 1 in 5 people were experiencing difficulties maintaining a healthy lifestyle, 14% consumed more alcohol, 58% spend more time in front the TV, computer and phone, 38% spend more time cooking and 22% stated they were eating more snacks. The shutdown of gyms and closure of beaches also affected fitness levels with 20% of people doing less exercise. A lot of people are losing jobs and getting into financial difficulty, and finances had deteriorated for 1 in 3 households. There are currently 3.3 million Australians who do not receive sick leave entitlements (casual workforce, small business owners) are under financial strain and increased stress levels due to the impact of COVID-19.

Maintaining mental health can be difficult for anyone during trying times like this pandemic crisis. We need to strengthen mental health support systems, especially for health care workers.

Over the past 14 years, it has been clear Australians consider healthcare and health and medical research as high spending priorities for the Australian Government. According to a survey conducted by opinion polling firm Roy Morgan Research 2017, nurses hold the most highly regarded profession in Australia, rating them ‘very high’ for their professional ethics and honesty. The health workforce in Australia is dominated by nurses, and nurses remain at the forefront of patient care. However, their heavy workload can leave them overworked and stressed. Nursing is an important role in our health care system, and during this pandemic crisis, it is becoming increasingly recognised that nurses are feeling more stressed, depressed and anxious than usual. The stress, depression, and anxiety experienced by nursing professionals may not be entirely preventable but realising its prevalence in the workplace is considerably important.

Special consideration needs to be given to front-line health care workers, who are either at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, or in regular and direct contact with patients with COVID-19. They are likely to be experiencing understandable anxiety and concern about exposure to the virus, their own health and the health of their loved ones and colleagues. Studies show that front-line health care workers experience higher anxiety than the general community about contracting viruses during pandemics. To stave off a mental health crisis, the World Health Organization has urged hospitals to think of the pandemic as a long-term situation, and give health care workers breaks and rotate them out of high-stress positions.

Let’s face it, to stop coronavirus we will need to radically change almost everything we do… we can’t go back to the way we live and work, even when a vaccine is found.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to change how we live and work. Under the Australian government’s three-stage plan to achieve a COVID-safe economy, there will be many considerations on how businesses can operate with ongoing restrictions and risk management measures. Employees returning to their workplace should expect a different work environment. Workplaces will implement social distancing policies, HR departments and managers will be a lot more on the frontline, there will be more focus on personal protective equipment (PPE) with regular stock of hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and face masks becoming commonplace, desks will become spaced out, unassigned seating may start to decline, temperature screening could become mandatory and standard office hours could become a thing of the past. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer’ Brendan Murphy has said “the government has urged employers and employees to look at staggered start and finish times, with some starting at 7 o’clock, some starting at 10 o’clock and people finishing at different times.’’

Like in many countries, companies and employees shifted to remote working in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19. Studies show, some people now working remotely have found they prefer it, while many others want to return to their physical office as they have better technology and more distraction free environment than the home office. It’s likely that more Australians will be given the flexibility to split their time between working from home and an office, but instead of commuting every day they are happier to be in the office for only 2-3 days of a 5-day working week. Perhaps there will be a 4-day working week revolution for us all, as it’s currently been trialed in Australia and reporting to be effective and productive.

Looking to the future, digital age and online work will become the new normal. With virtual and digital replacing physical wherever possible; phone calls will become emails, meetings will move to video chat, office buildings will become conference centres and e-learning will become a bigger part of our ongoing learning. Amid social distancing, people are relying on the internet and social media more than ever and many issues are arising that have previously never been faced. The death of real-world interaction could have devastating effects on who we become as social creatures…moving from physical to psychological. It is prudent to indicate that the world has changed many times and it will change once again. All of us will play a role adapting to a new way of living, working and forging relationships.

The first half of 2020 has been impossible to ignore, and as we enter into the second half of 2020, there is still no firm end date in sight.


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