By Patrick Lucas
In times of crisis such as COVID-19, individuals look to government. The public sector identifies problems, generates responses, convenes leaders, coordinates other organisations and motivates action. To deliver on their mission, senior public sector leaders must motivate and mobilise their teams, while the people who comprise these organisations are themselves experiencing changes caused by the pandemic, such as enduring quarantine.
But how do managers rise to the challenges caused by COVID-19 at a time when their staff might be under intense pressure?
The effects of quarantine, or long periods of isolation, can be wide-ranging, long-lasting, and are in addition to stress caused by changes to work routines. Understanding the potential effects of quarantine on your team will help you anticipate and respond to them.
There are three key questions senior public leaders should be asking themselves about the psychological impact of quarantine on their team and how to reduce it. Every organisation is different and the answers will depend on the unique circumstances your team is facing. These key questions can be considered a prompt for contextual reflection and a starting point to help guide a response.
The evidence review released by Brooks et al. (2020) in The Lancet explores the psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it. Quarantine reduces the risk of infection spreading, through the separation and restriction of movement of people who potentially have COVID-19 to find out if they become unwell. This differs from isolation which separates people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to protect people who are not infected.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Neil Greenberg, said that if quarantine or extended isolation was done badly then it could have some long-lasting psychological impacts, including the possibility of depression and some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most Australians and New Zealanders are not under quarantine, but restrictions are ratcheting up in all jurisdictions, and many are already facing an indeterminate period of not being able to attend work or school, go to public places, and have visitors in their homes. This may lead to psychological impacts that must be managed.
Symptoms of the psychological impact of quarantine include:
It must be noted that the more severe symptoms are associated with forced quarantine rather than voluntary, but that they can arise during and after quarantines of comparatively short duration. Team members may experience a range of these symptoms and understanding the potential impacts of quarantine will prepare managers to develop appropriate responses.
While these findings are intended for public health officials implementing mandatory quarantines, they have relevance for managers whose teams are grappling with lockdowns and changed routines
So how can you help your people through the mental challenges of quarantine-like conditions, while still delivering on your mission? The below questions are designed for senior public sector leaders to provoke reflection and an understanding of the quarantine-like conditions their staff may be in, including the mental impacts of these conditions, and what measures can be taken to lessen any detrimental impact.
Lines of communication move both ways. Do you have an on-the-ground understanding of your team’s experiences? Are you communicating with honesty, assuredness and regularity with your people?
Resources not only include the basic physical necessities to maintain health and access work. But this extends to having emotional support from the organisation. Parents are facing tough decisions around child care, there are other familial and financial stresses that can compound impacts. Each person will have their own experience. Are responses tailored for individuals?
Are there members of your team who have struggled with stress or other mental health issues, or who you feel may be particularly affected? What can you do to ensure they have the extra support – possibly from outside the organisation – that they need?
People crave certainty. But this is currently just about the scarcest resource around. Uncertainty on the duration of these conditions can have severe impacts on your people’s psychological health. Implications abound and actions need to be thought through.
The changes forced by COVID-19 are not welcome, but they have become the new normal. We accept that quarantines are unavoidable and for the public good, but part of your role as a senior public sector leader, is to stay ahead of the game and think about how you can make the situation bearable for your people and to ensure your organisation’s mission is being delivered.