We’ve all occasionally experienced anxiety, usually caused by external factors such as concern for a loved one who is ill or fear of retrenchment. However, after an exceptionally difficult two years, it comes as no surprise that many more people are now battling with anxiety on a daily basis.
This is according to Yael Geffen, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty, who says that the true impact of the pandemic on our mental and emotional wellbeing is only now coming to light and the results of research being conducted globally are alarming.
“There has been a notable increase in anxiety levels around the world, with Covid-19 being cited as the primary cause and, with the full extent of the economic fallout of the pandemic not yet clear, and further woes due to the war in Ukraine, this is an issue we need to focus on sooner rather than later.
“To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, in the USA, anxiety among adults increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68%, but between 2020 and 2021, the percentage of adults with anxiety symptoms rose from 36.4% to 41.5%.
One international study which included South Africa was Sapien Labs‘ inaugural Mental State of the World 2020 report which found that the pandemic has had a profound effect on the mental wellbeing of 57% of the 49 000 people surveyed across eight countries.
“Of great concern is that SA, along with the UK, scored the lowest regarding mental wellbeing but the highest in the financial distress category,” says Geffen. “This means that a startling number of South Africans will be struggling daily on many levels, and this will play out in both their personal and work lives.”
She adds that not only have we been dealing with a pandemic, we have endured violent incidences such as riots, unemployment is at an all-time high and we also regularly have the stress of loadshedding to add to our woes.
“People who’ve never experienced anxiety or depression before are feeling it now, often after a first covid infection and, for many, it’s really frightening, especially when it’s a symptom of long Covid.
Although not all stress is bad, it can easily become toxic if an individual feels that they have no control over it and they don’t have support systems in place to help them deal with it.
Geffen says there are a number of ways we can begin to regain some of our control and establish better coping mechanisms:
Focus on the basics – Get enough sleep (it’s harder to cope when we’re tired), eat balanced meals, spend time outdoors and exercise regularly.
Get back to nature – Not only does communing with nature relax the mind, thereby reducing feelings of stress and anxiety, it also reduces the amount of stress hormones, like cortisol, in our system. And don’t forget to top up on Vitamin D now that winter is upon us.
Plan ahead – All the fear and uncertainty that Covid engendered seems to have affected our ability to make long-term plans but after almost two years in limbo it can be very daunting to try and plan too far ahead. Take baby steps and set horizon lines with small achievable bite-sized chunks, such as a family brunch outing or a weekend away.
Create a basic but gentle routine – Having structure in your life will help you cope better but don’t be overly ambitious and set yourself up for failure – and thereby even more anxiety.
Identify your stress triggers – Record the situations, events and people who cause you to have a negative physical, mental or emotional response over a two-week period. Once you’ve identified your stress triggers, evaluate each situation or event and look for ways to resolve it.
Create an SOS group – of friends, colleagues or family members who you can rely on to assist you when your anxiety levels spike. In severe cases of panic attack, it’s impossible to function normally and it’s much easier to recover from them with support.
Hone your time-management skills – This is especially helpful if you tend to feel overwhelmed or under pressure at work. Make apriority list, ranking tasks in terms of importance and urgency and don’t take on more if you don’t have the time. This will also help to better balance your work and personal life.
Set boundaries – Digital technology has made it increasingly difficult to separate work and home and also to just take time out for ourselves. Try not to check email in the evenings or over weekends and, as far as possible, stick to a standard work schedule. Also set aside time when you don’t check your social media or read negative news feeds on your mobile device as these can also trigger anxiety.
Although these tactics will all help to get a handle on our anxiety and to develop coping skills, what is the best way to cope in the moment when you are feeling overwhelmed?
According to Geffen, the PDA method she devised is a very effective way to get the situation under control and reframe anxiety:
- Pause – Nothing productive can happen when you’re in an overwhelmed or anxious state so try to put everything on hold, even if for only 5 minutes;
- Distance – Remove yourself from your current surroundings, perhaps go for a walk with your dog or go to a nearby coffee shop;
- Acknowledge and accept – Instead of feeling completely overwhelmed, accept that it’s something that you are currently experiencing but it isn’t you and it will soon pass.
Geffen says that although we are all responsible for our own health, the pandemic has precipitated significant shifts in the workplace and employers need to understand that now, more than ever, a healthy and supportive workplace culture is critical to employee’s wellbeing.
“The focus on employee wellness has traditionally been on their physical well-being and the prevention of absenteeism, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that physical health is only one component when talking about healthy and well-functioning employees.
“It’s also becoming very obvious that employee health affects more than just medical costs and that there’s a direct correlation between a holistically healthy workforce and a productive workforce.”
There are a number of ways that employers can ensure the wellbeing of their employees:
Open the communication doors – Managers and bosses should ensure that their staff members know that their door is open should they need to talk and that they are welcome to share their concerns.
Boost morale – This can be done through the introduction of wellbeing initiatives and programmes and by encouraging regular social interaction among employees. Even something as simple as getting together for a drink after work each Friday will also go a long way in boosting morale easing stress levels.
Recognise their work and their efforts – people will always feel more satisfied and fulfilled if their hard work and effort is recognised and a culture of appreciation will also further empower and encourage employees. Establishing rewards platforms will gives them even more to strive towards.
A rotating mental health day roster – Allowing each staff member to take a day for self-care is imperative right now as well as getting in resources like experts/speakers to come and talk about mental health.
Give regular and timely feedback – when you regularly give your employees feedback, they feel that their work and their growth in the company matters. Furthermore, feedback will enable them to learn, work better, continue learning and feel as though their career is on track and advancing.
Show empathy – having empathy and compassion for your employees humanises your workplace and creates an emotional bond that automatically makes it a better place to work for everyone.
Geffen says that although the pandemic negatively impacted so many aspects of our lives, one silver lining is that it’s undoubtedly highlighted the importance mental health and this will lead to better understanding and more empathy in the workplace.
“Most important of all is to not feel ashamed. The world is in crisis right now and you are certainly not alone in your plight. Speak up, reach out and know that there are people and organisations ready to help.
“And if you need to take medication to help you cope, there is absolutely no shame in that either,” concludes Geffen. “Speak to a professional and get the help you need.”
Yael Geffen is a staunch advocate for mental health awareness and dedicates much of her time to destigmatising mental health issues and helping those who are afflicted as well as their families to better cope.