As a healthcare worker during COVID-19, connecting with colleagues is a lifeline in times of crisis. Social support builds you up during times of stress and gives you the strength to carry on.

The COVID-19 crisis is a time of increased stress, tension, uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. Social support decreases the negative effects of these deleterious emotions. As Professor Eddie Wolff, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton, says, social support is always associated with increased wellbeing in the workplace and home. It also lowers the chance of developing mental health difficulties – such as anxiety or depression.

 “Although social support adds a huge psychological benefit to our psychological and personal wellbeing, its importance is at its highest in this time of crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Professor Wolff says. Charon Streit, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Gariep, adds that “interactions with others help you to improve your resilience, which is needed in times of adversity.”

According to Professor Wolff, social support consists of four domains:

-        Emotional Support: The offering or acceptance of empathy, love, trust, affection, acceptance (unconditional) and care. This must be warm and nurturing.

-        Belonging Support: This happens when you feel you ‘belong’ to a (formal or informal) group, person or even a pet. It can sometimes manifest in shared social activities (even during social distancing), such as a WhatsApp group.

-        Instrumental Support: This is the perception that someone/others/institutions will provide tangible support in the form of finance, material goods or services.

-        Problem-solving Support: This involves having someone to go to for advice, problem solving or even just ‘an ear listening to me’.

“Under normal conditions, belonging to clubs, hobby groups and active social groups such as book clubs, provides significant social support,” says Professor Wolff. “However, given the significant negative effects in the form of social isolation during this pandemic phase, we need to increase our efforts to reach out to our partners, colleagues and friends. Lack of social support can lead to decreased immune reactivity (decreasing your ability to withstand the COVID-19 virus), neuroendocrine disorders plus headaches and other inflammatory reactions.”

How can you reach out?

1.     Watch people close to you carefully. Because you know them, you’ll be able to spot changes in their behaviour quickly. Communicate your concerns in a non-judgmental way, such as: ‘Now, you look so worried – are you okay?’.

2.     Don’t force your colleagues to talk, but if they do, listen carefully. Understanding how they feel will help tremendously. Then, support their emotions, acknowledging that ‘this is tough on you’.

3.     Only offer direct advice, if asked, or hinted at. Most of the time, your colleague just wants ‘an ear’ and to be understood and supported.

4.     An after-hours telephone call will go a long way.

“In these highly stressful pandemic climates, lack of social support will cause even greater distress,” Professor Wolff cautions. This particularly applies to healthcare workers as you often work alone, work long hours, worrying about your loved ones at home while continuously caring for patients.

Streit adds that social support is a very accessible coping mechanism when it comes to dealing with this pandemic. “Expressing your feelings, even though this cannot change the reality, helps to relieve tension,” she explains. Positive feedback or understanding of your emotions from your supportive colleagues helps you gain perspective. “Journalling can also help,” Streit says. “This is one way of formalising your emotions and thoughts and it brings relief.”

Of course, as much as you lean on your colleagues, you can also offer a shoulder to lean on. “Giving support and being there for another person is altruistic,” Streit says. “It gives purpose and meaning to your life.”