Post-traumatic stress disorder: The true cost of COVID-19 and its effect in the workplace
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is something normally seen in soldiers returning from war zones, or those who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It’s not something you would normally associate with a virus.
But COVID-19 is no normal virus. In a way, we are all in the midst of a war. Governments are holding daily updates and meetings to work out the best way to defeat the enemy, military soldiers have been replaced by healthcare workers putting their lives at risk daily as they tend to the sick, and normal people have been put under curfew.
What is PTSD?
PTSD, also known as combat stress or shell-shock is a chronic anxiety disorder that might develop after experiencing a serious, frightening or traumatic event such as terrorist attacks, serious accidents, natural disasters, diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, seeing someone die or bereavement. In a direct response to the event, feelings of fear, helplessness or horror are experienced.
Many symptoms of PTSD are similar to symptoms of a general anxiety disorder, such as irritability, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and feeling on edge. However, with PTSD you may also be prone to angry outbursts, feel jumpy, get easily started, or be hypervigilant, and these symptoms may interfere with your everyday life. Additionally, those experiencing PTSD can suffer from intense flashbacks, bad dreams, hallucinations, and psychological or physiological distress where they re-experience the trauma.
Who could be affected by PTSD after COVID-19?
Following the 2003 SARS outbreak in Taiwan, ‘The psychological effect of severe acute respiratory syndrome on emergency department staff’ study, (Lin CY, Peng YC, Wu YH, Chang J, Chan CH & Yang DY, 2007) concluded that: “SARS was a traumatic experience for healthcare providers in Taiwan. Most staff in the emergency department and in the psychiatric ward had PTSD. Emergency department staff had more severe PTSD symptoms than staff in the psychiatric ward.”
We have all seen pictures from hospitals where doctors and nurses are working around the clock in full protective clothing, hospitals close to breaking point and large venues normally the home of pop concerts and trade shows being turned into emergency medical centers.
For us, they are harrowing pictures, for healthcare personnel working in this environment it is a war zone. They are the ones who are triaging patients, working out who is in greatest need, choosing who gets a ventilator and inevitably in some cases choosing who lives and who dies. As doctors who have chosen to dedicate their lives to caring for the sick, this decision must be a horrific one to make.
However, all of us are at risk, not just frontline healthcare professionals or those who have lost loved ones, because we have all experienced a shock and our lives have been changed significantly. We have lost jobs, lost intimacy and experienced the fear of getting sick. We cannot go back to normal.
A study ‘Post-traumatic stress symptoms and attitude toward crisis mental health services among clinically stable patients with COVID-19 in China’ (Hai-Xin Bo, Wen Li, Yuan Yang, Yu Wang, et al, 2020) found that PTSD symptoms were prevalent in 96.2% of patients discharged from quarantine facilities, which indicated a need for longer-term psychological care for COVID-19 survivors.
Those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 may also be at greater risk of developing PTSD because they will have been unable to be with their dying relative in their last hours and days and hold a proper funeral. And those who already suffer from long-term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are predisposed to having an increased risk of developing PTSD.
How post-COVID-19 PTSD could affect productivity in the workplace
According to Feel’s own mental health statistics, depression is already the number one cause of disability worldwide, accounting for up to 400 million lost work days annually, with mental health and substance abuse alone costing US businesses $80- $100 billion annually. With the possibility of an influx of PTSD, this could exponentially increase the number of occupational disability cases because of mental health.
Additionally, there is also a cost in productivity and effectiveness as many people choose to carry on working, either on-site or remotely, instead of taking time off.
Deloitte’s ‘Mental Health & Employers — Refreshing the case for investment’ report, published January 2020, suggests that mental health will cost the global economy approximately $16.3 trillion in economic losses between 2011 and 2030, as well as driving up the cost for employers and health insurance companies. This is because people suffering from mental health conditions already submit between two and four times as many medical claims than other claimants. This has a knock-on effect on the amount of money companies spend on their employees’ mental health issues. Recent years have seen these annual costs increasing twice as fast as all other medical expenses.
How to cope with anxiety during COVID-19
It’s normal to feel anxious, our world has been turned upside-down. Life as we knew it has, for now, been put on hold.
Social distancing, self-isolation, worry about work or finances may stress you out, however, there are steps you can take to become prevent your anxieties take control:
- Make sure you have a support network, so you can connect and talk to someone about how you are feeling
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle
- Watch what you think, how you feel, and how you behave. Try and keep a positive state of mind and find coping mechanisms to anchor you when anxiety strikes
- Switch off from the news and only get information from reputable sources
Feel Relief Program
Under these circumstances, we developed Feel Relief, a new tailored and structured 4-week mental health program to help people manage excessive worry during the COVID-19 pandemic about their health, the new way of living or their financial future, so they can turn anxiety into a balanced emotional state. The program includes access to mental health resources, an app to journal emotions as well as weekly online sessions with qualified coaches who will teach useful techniques to manage stress levels during the global crisis.
We cannot predict what the future has in store for us, but there are things we can do to help ourselves and our mental health.
Don’t suffer in silence.