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United States
DateMarch 16, 2020
ByVictoria Entwistle
SectorHealth & Wellness
Reading time6mins

Home Alone: the psychological impact of self-isolation – and how employers can help

This article was authored by Victoria Entwistle, Director of People and Purpose, and Dan Berry, Director of Behavioral Science, H+K UK

Organizations are planning for the next phases of the coronavirus, which for many will include more remote working and self-isolation. Best practices in planning is checking staff can work remotely, rescheduling events to become virtual, and updating more immediate emergency contact channels like WhatsApp groups.

At the same time, each of us is also thinking through our own plans and how those impact our families.

In addition to making practical preparations, we need also to plan for the psychological impact of isolation – whether that’s less contact or no contact with the outside world. What are those psychological impacts and what can employers do to support our colleagues through this?

A recent review paper in The Lancet sets out the type of challenges many of us may soon face. This is very timely research, especially as it includes lessons from previous outbreaks such as H1N1 in China and SARS in Canada.

Researchers summarized three psychological harms caused by a period of separation from others and restrictions on movement.

First, for many of us this may increase stress and anxiety. This is especially true when coupled with fears of infection. There is evidence that fear of infecting others is especially important to pregnant women and parents of young children. Perhaps for coronavirus also to our parents and grandparents. Isolation may also quickly become boring, which itself adds to anxiety.

Second, confusion – potentially turning into anger. This is exacerbated by inadequate information or uncertainty about quarantine plans and health prognosis. The duration of self-isolation is also crucial, with periods longer than ten days being psychological harder than less than ten days. Current advice for coronavirus suggests either 7 or 14 days, depending on circumstances.

Third, the psychological harms may have long term effects – well beyond the period of isolation. Studies show that staff returning to work after a period of isolation can experience exhaustion, low mood and irritability. They may continue to engage in avoidance behaviors rather than return to normality, such as avoiding busy events or people with coughs and sneezes. These may contribute to staff well-being, retention and productivity challenges.

We need to follow the best public health advice, which may include working from home for many of us and self-isolation for some. What can employers do, and what can we each do to support our colleagues?

  • Minimize duration: especially if people must totally self-isolate, rather than restrict movements, it’s important to keep the period as short as possible. If, as seems likely, isolation can cause stress and other mental health issues, the longer this lasts the bigger a risk that is. Stick to the recommendations from public health experts. Don’t jump the gun. And especially don’t extend it, as that may exacerbate a sense of uncertainty and frustration. Extending duration may be done with the very best of intentions, but may lead to these ‘hidden’ psychological harms.

  • Provide regular information: establish a single source of truth that people know will be up to date. The World Health Organisation uses Workplace (a tool by Facebook) to keep internal teams updated[1]. The latest news can be “pinned” to the top. Ensure you always refer to the local public health advice. Check your emergency contact lists are accurate, including for employees that don’t have email at work.

  • Reduce boredom: Use this moment to get experimental with virtual collaboration. Make it fun and encourage innovation from colleagues to test different tools through challenges and collective online moments. Approaches to encourage the closeness of meeting are essential, such as ensuring teams and technology defaults to video calling rather than voice. Why not simulate the team meeting at a designated time and get everyone to show off their favorite mug?

  • Focus special attention: some of our colleagues will especially benefit from psychological support. Those include staff who are less able to do their usual work remotely; what genuinely meaningful activities could they do to stay motivated? What can we do for staff who may contract the virus themselves, or who are caring for others who are unwell?  Or if the schools close, for staff juggling childcare?

  • Highlight altruism: a final thought is the role we can all play in communicating why this is so important. Evidence suggests it is better to communicate that we’re doing this in order to keep others safe, rather than because we’re told to – or for our own personal health. This makes us feel positive through tough times and help us through what may be a practically and psychologically difficult period.

Take a look at The Lancet paper for more information.