Omicron, stress and mental health

One must try and avoid the conundrum that some employers have little incentive or resources to look after the mental health of those workers unable to work, yielding to the temptation to leave them to rely on social benefits


Everyone was looking forward to a relaxed Christmas holiday season away from lockdowns, face masks and roaming outside in serenity but last week harsher rules were announced by the health authorities.

The official announcement states that any person above the age of three is legally obligated to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing rules while outside. A cash fine of €100 is payable if caught breaking the rule. Health minister Chris Fearne decreed that only these situations will be excused:

  • Speaking to a person who relies on lip-reading to communicate
  • During an official public speaking event, provided a two-metre distance is maintained
  • For identification purposes at banks, the airport or by law enforcement officials
  • To receive a medical or cosmetic service involving the face or mouth
  • To take medication
  • When seated at an establishment where food or drink is served
  • When necessary to eat or drink
  • When smoking a lit tobacco product

Many now start questioning the merits of inoculation given the population is more than 90% vaccinated in two doses with an increasing number receiving the booster jab, yet as stated earlier, stricter rules now apply.

People can be excused for questioning whether the sudden change of heart is a reflection of the true effectiveness of existing vaccines. It may lead persons to think that scientists – having discovered the new variant styled Omicron – have to go to the drawing board and start testing new vaccines.  This has set the cat among the pigeons.

Perhaps a survey is sorely needed to gauge the level of satisfaction by the public of the rushed global vacation programme. George Vella, head of advisory at Grant Thornton, said that preliminary research into the ongoing public healthcare reform showed that 38% of current patients feel ‘satisfied’ with the primary healthcare system and 33% were ‘very satisfied’.

Furthermore, it is encouraging to note that 71% of the population attended a health centre within the span of a year.  Of those who did not, 66% said they would do so if the service was updated. Another research was started by the University of Malta’s Department of Anthropological Sciences as one of the 15 global partners.

This involved ethnographic data collection and analysis as part of the project’s vulnerability assessment in relation to COVID-19.  The research includes a sample of 120 in-depth interviews with individuals from all backgrounds, who have been impacted by the current pandemic, whether in terms of their overall health and well-being, or their financial and social well-being.

More will be revealed when this empirical research is concluded. Further research was conducted by the OECD focusing in areas how Covid impinges on employees’ wellbeing.  An overall conclusion was reached that in reality workplace policies can play a sizeable role in promoting better mental health for all, and employers must strengthen mental health support for individuals on sick leave.

This year, there has been an acute awareness among corporates to measure the incidence of serious mental health and gauge the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Various studies show how the global financial industry faced an equally serious mental health crisis last year, in addition to creeping inflation unfolding all around it.  In Malta, the economy has demonstrated its resilience by continuing to operate during lockdowns with the majority of people working from home.  But for many employees, forced to remote working from home since March 2020 while sometimes also caring for children while schools were closed, this felt like an endurance test. The resulting anxiety has provided a strain on focus, productivity, and morale, all of which can potentially lead to errors.

Both the Chamber of Commerce and Employers Association voiced their concern about the effect of Covid on the physical and mental well-being of employees.  This stress factor together with the anxiety of when a general election will be announced - all this has emerged as a top concern. Although a number of third-country nationals have recently been recruited by the Health Department, there is still a shortage of medical staff and authorities fear an exacerbation of higher infections from Omicron this winter.

The pandemic highlights the persistent shortage of health workers stressing on the government, the importance of investing more in the years ahead in improving primary care and disease prevention and to strengthen the resilience and preparedness of health systems.  As can be expected, the lack of health and long-term care staff is proving to be more of a binding constraint than shortage of hospital beds and operating theatres.  The pandemic has also underscored the impact of unhealthy lifestyles, with smoking, harmful alcohol use and obesity increasing the risk of people dying apart from the scourge of the five million dead from COVID-19 itself.

Locally critics blame the government saying that health spending continues to focus mainly on curative care rather than disease prevention and health promotion, noting that the capital enhancements on three public hospitals contracted with Steward Health Care have not materialized.

On another aspect, one cannot ignore the effect on school children. Before COVID, going back to school was associated with feelings of joy and excitement for most children: preparing their school bag, wondering which friends they were going to be in class with, wondering if their favourite teacher was going to teach them, thinking of their break time and extra-curricular activities. COVID-19 has spoilt the fun for these children.

Studies conducted by OECD show that on average the economic costs of poor mental health are more than 4.2% of GDP, and more than a third of this cost is partly due to lower employment levels (in case of furlough workers in Malta this is reputed to reach 100,000 jobs), impacting an 11% deficit in GDP’s productivity.

Ideally, we will have to invest more in mental health and targeted educational support for those hardest-hit by the COVID-19 crisis, including young people and one notes how in Malta the furlough scheme was not cheap.  Having been introduced last year, it was costing about €44 million monthly.  This has now been tapered down towards the end of this year although the MHRA are protesting that both restaurants and hotels will not survive beyond the Christmas season, unless the supplements are extended to quarter one of 2022.

To conclude, one must try and avoid the conundrum that some employers have little incentive or resources to look after the mental health of those workers unable to work, yielding to the temptation to leave them to rely on social benefits.

A Merry Christmas to all readers.

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