We have lived and faced the challenges presented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than sixteen months. It has resulted in job losses, a fear for our own safety and a lack of healthy social interaction to name a few. In this short article we summarise some of the findings of the impact of the pandemic on our mental health and how employees have experienced it within the workplace.

Although public restrictions such as social distancing, implementing a national night time curfew, banning the sale of alcohol etc. are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it can make us feel isolated and lonely, often increasing emotions of stress and anxiety.

The Global Business Ethics Survey Report (GBES), published in March 2021 by the US-based Ethics & Compliance Initiative, found that more than forty-four per cent of employees indicated that they were experiencing more work-related pressure than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previous studies by the GBES have shown that organisational changes could have an adverse effect on ethics outcomes. Both U.S. and global data indicated that pressure, observed misconduct, reporting and retaliation all increased as a result of the changes many organisations were forced to make in response to the pandemic. Nearly fifty-seven per cent of U.S. and global employees surveyed also said they started working remotely at least some of the time and that their interactions with colleagues and others were drastically different.

Organisations are cautioned in the GBES 2021:
“The data suggest that organizations move cautiously forward if implementing organizational changes at this time or in the upcoming months. If the economy worsens and organizations react by implementing recessionary tactics, it is strongly advised that they take precautionary action to limit increases in pressure, misconduct and retaliation, and support behaviors that epitomize a strong ethics culture.”

RiskWise (Pty) Ltd , a South African company that specialises in human and physical risks, has found that because human beings are “social” by nature, having to work from home or remotely can have a negative impact on ethical decision-making. The social context within which one finds oneself helps a person to identify what “doing the right thing” is under particular circumstances. Without positive environmental cues (like a strong organisational ethics code and policies), a person could struggle when he or she faces an ethical dilemma. The pandemic has in certain aspects increased the reputational risk for organisations as employee integrity is often “tested” under such difficult conditions.

Feelings of disconnectedness can also decrease motivation and increase unethical conduct as all the “rules, policies and regulations” are so far away that it becomes less important to follow high ethical standards.

A study by Professor Dan Cable and Professor Francesca Gino starts with an acknowledgement that the pandemic has led to a global sense of fatigue. The study found that people’s level of engagement during the pandemic was directly tied to their “crisis mindset”. Those who saw the pandemic as a threat, switched off and they became disconnected from work. However, iIt became apparent that if people were able to embrace change and see the disruption as an opportunity to learn and grow, they became more resilient, engaged and energised by their work.

The survey findings also showed that bosses have a significant influence on how their staff adapt and that those employees can be swayed towards or away from a positive crisis mindset by the actions and behaviours modelled by their leaders. This had a real impact on how engaged the employees felt.

Considering these studies, it can be concluded that it is the time for leaders to:
• Evaluate their own emotional contagion (is it positive or negative)
• Cultivate an opportunity mindset where a crisis is seen as an opportunity to grow and learn
• Build a culture of trust that stimulates meaningful engagement in teams
• Actively build a sense of collective purpose in the organisation
• Share a vision of the future that will inspire employees to feel connected and find new perspectives around ways of working.

The following action points can also be helpful:
• Speak candidly about mental health with your employees
• Keep the conversation going
• Include all levels of staff in these discussions
• Encourage employees to take mental health days off
• Pay attention and be ready to help where necessary
• Make sure the tools and resources provided are relevant
• Facilitate access to these resources and aids
• Prioritise confidentiality and anonymity of those that confide in you
• Design a mentally healthy work space
• Focus on the positive

In conclusion it is recommended that employers recognise the reality that the pandemic has had an effect on mental health and the temptation to put personal interest first at the cost of being honest may become greater when employees work for home. Investing in an ethical and healthy workplace culture is now more important than ever.