Opinion

One year on – how has the pandemic affected mental health and well-being?

By Anne Janssen, ZPB’s Analyst

It has been a year since the announcement of the first national lockdown. The news of the opening of society provides a glimpse of hope for many.

But what are the actual impacts of this lockdown on people’s well-being? While many of us might feel hopeful about the future, some of us may be anxious about opening up society and might feel they will struggle to adjust to ‘normality’.

What state is society currently in?

While the roadmap out is the light at the end of the tunnel, it is important to understand that society has changed as a result of the lockdown and that we cannot expect to go back to ‘normal’ or pre-pandemic Britain overnight. Currently, 31% of adults surveyed by the Office of National Statistics [1,2] have reported that they experienced high levels of anxiety and half (50%) said their well-being has been affected as a result of the pandemic. People are concerned about the effect that COVID-19 has on their life, with 62% either very worried or somewhat worried.

Unsurprisingly, it is not just the general public that has suffered during the pandemic. The NHS staff survey, which ran during October and November 2020 shows that 44% of staff felt unwell as a result of work-related stress, which is a significant increase from the previous year (40%). Given that this was before the latest wave, this number is likely higher now. Since this year has been an enormous challenge for staff, a more thorough understanding of the impacts on their mental health is needed.

Each lockdown has meant uncertainty about the future and how long this situation would last, what the effects are on the economy and jobs, future plans, seeing family etc. and while uncertainty is not necessarily the cause of anxiety, it can provide a breeding ground for it [3]. As we look ahead to opening up, there is not a lot of clarity on what to expect, and indeed with how much optimism to approach the opening. On top of uncertainty, fear of the virus will also contribute to anxiety for many. At the moment, almost one in three people (30%) feel uncomfortable or very uncomfortable about leaving the house due to the pandemic, which indicates that people are nervous about the virus. Since the virus is likely to still be circulating even in June, it is possible that many people will still feel uncomfortable then.

For others, the prospect of socialising without limits might mean the return of triggers of social anxiety. It is important that we are aware of the effects that a sudden shift in routine and expectation can have on people that suffer from mental health issues. Even though broadly the opening of society is seen as good news, we need to make sure that people are supported throughout the phases of reopening and that we do not underestimate the longer lasting effects of lockdown simply because the end is in sight.

Similarly, the opening of schools and the end of home schooling is broadly considered to be good news. However, children have gone through a year of on-and-off schooling and that has caused significant disruption. NHS advice for helping children cope with anxiety includes sticking to routines where possible [4], something that hasn’t been easy in the last year. With almost two in three parents (63%) [5] saying their children’s well-being has been negatively impacted as a result of home schooling. We need to ensure that parents are supported and equipped to talk to their children about the return to school and that teachers and schools acknowledge how difficult home schooling has been for children not just for their education but also for their mental health and development.

Why does this matter?

As we’re slowly coming out of lockdown, we will be faced with the effects that the pandemic has had on all of us. The idea that we will all emerge and return to normality is unlikely given the effects on well-being and mental health on the population. While the NHS has rightly focussed all its efforts on fighting the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on society both on the general public and on NHS staff means that even once the acute threat of COVID-19 on hospitals has passed, the NHS faces an enormous challenge as an employer, with 44% struggling with work related stress, and as a mental health provider. The rise in anxiety and worry will not just affect mental health but will most likely also impact how people interact with healthcare in general. Concern about leaving the house might provide a barrier for people to access conventional healthcare appointments or vaccination appointments. There is an opportunity to improve remote access of both mental health care and acute health care from home, allowing people to feel more comfortable and encourage them to access healthcare where they feel safe.

 

To find out more about the latest ONS figures to help your organisation analyse the opportunities and threats to your business as we emerge out of lockdown, please email anne.janssen@zpb-associates.com.

[1] Released on 19th of March, updated weekly

[2] Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain

[3] The Causes of Anxiety | Psychology Today

[4] Anxiety in children – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

[5] Coronavirus and homeschooling in Great Britain – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)