We are now passing the one-year mark since COVID-19 infections began to rise rapidly in the U.S., leading to illness and death, widespread shutdowns of public spaces, stay-at-home orders, and massive changes to the workplace. These visible changes have been challenging, but the pandemic has also affected the mental health of our nation’s workforce. How can employers help?
COVID-19 and Its Impact on Mental Health
The news about COVID-19 was overwhelming from the beginning. A virus with high rates of infection and death? Countries from China to Italy reporting rising death tolls? No known therapeutic remedies or cures?
The early reports were enough to cause an upswing in anxiety and depression among Americans. The CDC reported that over 40% of American adults surveyed in June 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, or substance abuse related to pandemic stress — a considerable jump from the 10% reported the previous year. It makes sense that anxiety levels rose, be they from fear of the virus, fear for loved ones, or fear of economic instability and job loss. These fears compounded and took a toll on our mental health.
Lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and the shutdown of entire industries worsened the mental health crisis. Humans are social creatures who crave face-to-face contact with friends, family, and even strangers. With public gatherings banned, many Americans found themselves inside their homes, day in and day out, limited to internet-based contact or none at all.
Long Term Effects of Pandemic Anxiety
While the full story of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to unfold, the nation appears to be moving out of the worst phase of the crisis. But the anxiety and depression have lingered. Pew Research Center reports that about 20% of Americans are currently experiencing “high levels of psychological distress.”
Many Americans are grieving the loss of a family member or friend. Others may be more afraid to venture into public places. Many are struggling to reestablish pre-COVID work routines after a year of working from home, or are dealing with the consequences of unemployment. Reentering the workforce with a new job or simply getting back into an office can cause anxiety and fear. All these mental health concerns can impact an employee’s satisfaction and productivity in the workplace.
How Employers Can Help Their Employees Cope
The process of reopening the workplace comes with unique challenges. Businesses must keep up with their industry after COVID-related disruptions while simultaneously setting up new health and safety protocols. These may include sanitation measures, rearranged office spaces, and access to COVID testing with services like Brio. Testing is crucial for employees’ physical health, but it’s also important for their mental health, helping workers feel safe and comfortable in the office.
Support will vary from employer to employer, but the following suggestions from the American Psychological Association are an excellent place to start:
- Equip managers with information about stress, anxiety, depression, and the warning signs of mental health struggles.
- Encourage a compassionate approach to these struggles within the workplace.
- Look for signs of mental stress, using video calls rather than phone calls to get regular face-to-face interaction with employees who are still working remotely.
- Make it easy for employees to ask for help by posting contact information for mental health professionals in easy-to-access locations.
- Consider providing insurance coverage for mental health services.
- Consider allowing mental health days or extra personal leave for employees experiencing stress, anxiety, and burnout.
- Encourage employees to voice their preferences for new work schedules and office setup plans.
- Make transitions smoother by allowing employees time and flexibility around returning to the office.
- Postpone pay-related job reviews to eliminate stress around job performance as employees get back up to speed.
As we move forward in rebuilding our many working industries in 2021 and beyond, providing resources to support employees’ mental health will contribute to successful business outcomes powered by confident and happy employees.
Amy Smith is a writer, educator, and health-conscious mother of six, living on a small homestead in rural Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in a variety of online publications in the fields of natural living, health and wellness, family and parenting.
University of Michigan Health Blog - Mental Health in the Workplace During COVID-19
National Institutes of Health - The COVID-19 pandemic and mental health impacts
Pew Research Center - Many in U.S. face mental health issues as COVID-19 enters year two
Frontiers in Psychology - Psychological Consequences of Social Isolation
American Psychological Association - Employers are increasing support for mental health
American Psychological Association - Supporting employee mental health when reopening the workplace