Uganda: United Nations Wellness Program Helping UN Staff and Their Families Cope With the Effects of Global COVID-19 Pandemic

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic whose initial case was first reported in the Wuhan Province of China in January 2019 has affected the lives of many people, globally. Equally, Uganda has not been spared. The country has reached three months under lockdown which started in April 2020. Although there has been gradual ease of the lockdown, some sections of Ugandans remain affected.

The lockdown was announced by the President of Uganda, H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to stop local transmission of the Coronavirus disease. This led to the closure of most workplaces, businesses, schools as well as borders which meant that people had to be home with limited or no movement, for months. This affected people in different ways including their financial wellbeing and mental health.

To protect the staff from COVID-19, the United Nations System in Uganda implemented the work-from-home policy. This required almost all staff to work remotely without physically reporting to their places of work. With the students back home due to the lockdown, parents had to juggle between work and taking care of the children, which is no mean fit.

The UN staff as well were not spared and had to juggle between ensuring that the spouses and kids are kept safe and in line while also making sure that they meet their work targets, leading to increased stress among the staff.

In that regard, the UN wellness team, established by the UN Resident Coordinator, Ms Rosa Malango and led by the World Health Organization (WHO) surveyed UN staff to understand their experiences. The primary objective of the survey was to inform the UN Country Team's (UNCT) overall Health and Wellness strategy which in turn would channel support to UN Staff and Personnel during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While the survey revealed an improved work-life balance and improved health and wellbeing while working from home, it also highlighted the social tension among families due to increased incidences of domestic violence. The UNCT also realized that the lockdown had increased the financial burden on some staff due to increased extended family and friend's dependency, increased household utility costs and prices of essential commodities.

Asked about working from home, out of 837 respondents, 25% noted that they are okay with either working from home or office, 39% prefer working from home while 40% prefer to work from the office. Overall, the survey revealed that for the first time in a long time, the UN staff are attaining a proper work-life balance.

In response, the UN Wellness team, working with the International Centre for Family Care designed personal wellness presentations to enable individual staff and teams to thrive and maintain emotional stability and wellness during unsettling times.

"We believed this would play a tremendous role in comforting the staff and reassuring them of the organization's support during this trying time," said Dr Bayo Fatunmbi, the UN Wellness Team Lead.

So far, the team has counselled staff on various topics including, How to Achieve a Good Mental Health and Individual Productivity During Crisis Times, COVID-19 Pandemic and Family Relationships, Positive parenting during COVID-19 pandemic crisis and Working from Home.

The other topics which have been covered so far include Intentional Parenting: Raising Emotionally Healthy, Mature and Disciplined Children, and Effective Communication Skills in time of Crisis.

"The sessions have been very helpful to me and my family, especially intentional parenting and effective communication skills in a time of crisis," said Monica Aturinda, a Communications Officer in the UN Resident Coordinator's Office.

Monica adds, "we usually underestimate the importance of effective communication between adults as well between adults and children and yet it is very important during this tricky time."

"Mental health is very important as it affects so many aspects of our lives," says Dr Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the WHO Representative in Uganda. "We believe that to ensure that our staff are productive and safe, their concerns ought to be addressed, which explains why the UNCT set up the UN Wellness Team counselling sessions."

Indeed, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been drastic changes in the way of life for many, some with positive outcomes, others negative. A step by the UN country team to better understand and address the staff concerns and fears indicates that the leadership values the importance of staff wellbeing. With the positive feedback received about the counselling sessions so far, one can note a step in the right direction by the United Nations System in Uganda.

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