The mental well-being of a population–including social well-being and psychological and emotional aspects–is essential to organizational development and a country’s sustainable development. The state of our mental health impacts the way we think, the way we act, the choices we make, and how we relate with others in society. A 2016 report from The Mental Health Foundation has shown that workplaces with high levels of positive mental health amongst their employees are more productive and add more value to the economy. To protect that value and achieve sustainable development, there is a need to protect and maintain a workplace environment that is conducive to the mental health of the workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a seismic shift in workplace cultures around the world. Organizations were forced to transition physical working spaces to virtual or remote spaces to ensure organizational continuity amidst global lockdowns. Employees were forced into isolation in which their only human interaction (outside of those in their household) took place through a screen. Bearing in mind that humans are relational, studies have shown that the combination of remote work and government measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have affected the mental health well-being of individuals. The change in people’s behaviors and thoughts have demonstrated worries about health, limited assurance of the future, and increased uncertainty. The anxiety of losing employment, contracting the virus, or losing loved ones due to COVID-19 has increased mental health difficulties. These not only affect one’s mental health but their productivity and performance at work.

When we achieve strong mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, we make the most of our potential, we have the stamina to do the things we want to do, and the full ability to handle challenges that life brings to us in our relationships, workplaces, and community.

“Caring for mental health is as important as caring for the body. In fact, one cannot be healthy without the other.”

“Caring for mental health is as important as caring for the body. In fact, one cannot be healthy without the other,” Sid Garza -Hillman states in his book Approaching the Natural: A Health Manifesto. When our physical health is not at its best, we clearly know when and where to go to get fit and receive the appropriate medical care. Wondering if we do the same for our mental health raises a couple of questions:

· How do we manage our own mental health at work?

· How do we support a colleague facing distress?

· How do we work together to build a work environment that provides mental health aid for everyone to achieve sustainable growth?

Working remotely for the past 18 months has proven how much we need each other to live and perform at our best. Less is accomplished without consulting a colleague or a supervisor. Because of the collaboration that occurs and the time spent together, our colleagues become friends and a natural support system. With that connection, their well-being easily affects their work performance and ours directly or indirectly.

This past June, I tested positive for COVID-19. I thought of the worst scenarios and got anxious about the projects I was working on. When my team learned that I was not well, they were forthcoming with their support and encouraged me not to worry about work and to take time to rest and heal myself. They reached out every day with positive messages and good humor. I would go so far as to say that the compassion and empathy showed to me during that time sped up my recovery process and strengthened these bonds.

We are in each other’s space and therefore creating a healthy environment for those around us should be a priority. A toxic work environment runs the risk of spreading to one’s home life and community. How we manage our own mental health at work and how we provide a safe space to our colleagues by showing compassion and empathy will determine the overall health of the workforce.

With the current state of testing and vaccination, there is hope to resume working from offices in the near future. As employers plan on transitioning, it is important to be mindful of the fact that some individuals are dealing with distress, the grief of lost loved ones, anxiety about associating with people in crowded places, or fear of contracting the virus. People need support to deal with this spectrum of emotions at their own different pace.

We are responsible for supporting each other’s well-being. By embracing compassion and empathy in our daily lives, opening up forums to talk about mental health, and advocating for pro-mental health policies in our places of employment we are laying the foundation for a healthy workforce for future generations to come.

This piece was originally published on Global Health Corps’ publication AMPLIFY and written by Holly Louise Irasubiza. Holly was a 2017–2018 fellow. She currently serves as a Senior Officer, Learning & Development at the National Bank of Rwanda.