The impact of the covid response upon workplace absenteeism

Predictable consequences of fear mongering and non-evidenced restrictions

The Office of National Statistics has estimated that, in 2022, 185.6 million working days were lost due to sickness, the highest figure recorded since records began. The British economy loses £43 billion a year from this growing ‘disease burden’, with around a third of this strain being attributed to mental health problems. It is reasonable to propose that the covid response – concocted by our government ministers in collaboration with their public health experts – bears a significant responsibility for this deterioration in the psychological wellbeing of the nation.

By imposing non-evidenced covid restrictions (such as lockdowns and masks), together with a communication strategy underpinned by emotionally manipulative ‘nudges’, our leaders created a milieu of fear, loneliness and uncertainty – the optimal growbag for human distress. While children and the elderly were especially impacted by these measures, many of the working-age population would also have been significantly affected by the pandemic response. Thus, by 2021, around 21% of the population were suffering some form of depression (compared to 10% prior to the covid event); even now the prevalence continues to be elevated at about 16%. In addition, the 2020/21 period witnessed significant increases in anxiety, suicidal ideation, psychotic episodes and alcohol abuse.

Arguably, the most pernicious mental-health consequence of the covid restrictions and the relentless fear-laden messaging has been to spawn irrational concerns about contamination and physical illness. Prior to the covid era, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and severe health anxiety (hypochondriasis) were two problems that habitually presented to psychological therapy clinics. The government’s response to covid will have exacerbated the distress of those already struggling with these life-changing anxiety difficulties, as well as pushing many more people into the clinical range of anxiety regarding the prospect of contamination and physical ill-health.

These dire mental health consequences of the public health restrictions and messaging were so very predictable. Both OCD and severe health anxiety are typically characterised by counterproductive coping strategies, behaviours that patients often deploy to try and reduce their anxieties, but which only act to increase and prolong their emotional distress. These include:

1.  Extreme cleaning rituals: People with obsessive-compulsive fears of contamination will often scrub their hands excessively (to the point of skin erosion), overly disinfect work surfaces, and wash clothing unnecessarily. Those suffering health anxiety may also take extreme measures – such as social isolation or breath-holding when in proximity to others – in an effort to minimise the risk of infection. Unfortunately these behaviours, while sometimes resulting in a brief period of reduced anxiety, will – in the medium/long term – act to maintain high levels of distress.

2.  Excessive checking/selfmonitoring: Those suffering health anxiety will continually inspect and monitor their bodies for any signs of ill health, typically discovering ‘symptoms’ that they interpret to be indicative of their imminent demise. Those struggling with OCD will often engage in extensive checking rituals, striving for 100% certainty that they will not become contaminated or contaminate others.

3.  Habitual seeking of reassurance: Doctors (in both primary care and accident & emergency departments) will be familiar with distressed and agitated patients with health anxiety, repeatedly requesting reassurance that they do not have a serious, life-threatening medical condition. Similarly, OCD sufferers will commonly ask friends and relatives for assurance that they have not inadvertently contaminated themselves or their loved ones.   

Psychological therapy for these life-changing anxiety problems typically involves a systematic effort to eliminate these counterproductive coping strategies together with the challenging of the rigid beliefs that fuel them – beliefs such as, ‘I’m totally responsible for the safety of others’ and ‘I should strive for 100% safety all of the time’.

Given the behavioural and cognitive characteristics of those prone to OCD and/or health anxieties, what did our government and their expert advisors bombard us with throughout the covid event? A relentless combination of directives and messages seemingly crafted to push as many people as possible into the clinical range of anxiety:

  • The requirement for mass testing to reassure ourselves and others that we did not harbour the virus;
  • Mask mandates that perpetuated fear by making us less likely to conclude that the world was now ‘safe enough’ to return to normal activities;
  • Close-up images of acutely unwell patients, with the caption: ‘Can you look them in the eye & tell them you’re doing all you can to stop the spread of coronavirus?’;
  • Mantras to fuel obsessive anxieties, such as: ‘Don’t kill your gran’, ‘Act like you’ve got the virus’, ‘Anyone can get it, anyone can spread it’, ‘No one is safe until we’re all safe’ and ‘If you go out you can spread it, people will die’.        

Such an onslaught was bound to activate those already struggling with obsessive and health anxieties as well as to encumber many more people with these incapacitating emotional difficulties.

The sickness pandemic that is currently undermining the British economy will, undoubtedly, be underpinned by several factors. Many work absentees will be afflicted with genuine physical health problems, a significant proportion of whom are the victims of the restricted access to hospitals for non-covid illnesses between 2020 – 2022. Some will be – opportunistically – abusing the system, defaulting to the ‘I’ve got covid’ excuse as a means of avoiding work. Others will be convinced that they have been afflicted with the broad definition of the disorder tagged as ‘long covid’. However, in addition to these causes, a major reason for the mass absenteeism from the workplace will be the newly created group of irrationally anxious people, the casualties of covid policy and the accompanying communication strategy, who are now prone to be activated by a sniffle or a common cold.

Finally, it must be recognised – as we have written before – that the sharp increases in disability claims reported in both the USA and the UK are temporally correlated to the rollout of the Covid vaccination program. It seems obvious that any increase in disability would also be associated with an increase in workplace absenteeism.

Given the strength of the association between vaccination and disability claims, it is surely incumbent upon respective governments to investigate whether such a correlation has any causative basis, yet to date, we are none the wiser as no data broken down by vaccination status has yet been made available for analysis.

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