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How COVID-19 Is Affecting the Mental Health of Employees; What Can Employers Do?

By Natasha Tracy  •   April 12, 2021

Photo Credit: by Chad Davis, flickr.com
Photo Credit: by Chad Davis, flickr.com

COVID-19 is affecting employers in legal, medical, and just plain human ways. This previously unheard-of challenge of a pandemic is making everything at work more difficult, whether that’s because employees are working from home, because they’re frontline workers and at-risk, or simply because the coronavirus is affecting employee’s health, including their mental health. And, of course, now that North America is experiencing a third wave of COVID-19, these difficulties are even more pronounced. Employers must take these COVID-19 effects seriously and fight them on multiple fronts. So how is COVID-19 affecting employee’s mental health and what can employers do to help? This is what Mental Health America (MHA) has aimed to answer with their Workplace Health Survey 2021, and it’s what is being looked at here.

Employee’s Mental Health and Financial Insecurity in the Pandemic

Unfortunately, when COVID-19 ran rampant in North America, businesses had to adapt and many did so by closing, reducing their workforce or reducing employee hours. This has led to financial insecurity among many employees as they became unsure as to where their next paycheck was coming from or how much it might be. This translates into many negative mental health effects on employees. This was made clear when employees were asked by MHA about their worry regarding the cost of living, cost of healthcare and presence of savings.

The following are the statistics regarding financial insecurity [Source]:

• 58 percent of people said they worry about not having enough money to pay for my living expenses.

• 60 percent of people said they are not paid enough to save three months worth of expenses for an emergency.

• 34 percent said they are unable to afford their or their family’s healthcare costs.

The threshold in which people felt that they earned enough to pay for their living expenses was an individual income between $60,000 and $79,999 per year and most people surveyed (around 65 percent) make below that amount, so, it’s understandable that most people are concerned that they can’t pay for their living expenses. The income required to feel comfortable in saving three months worth of expenses for an emergency was even higher at $80,000 per year. Nearly 80 percent of respondents made below this amount.

The industries with the highest “financial health” score included research and development, energy, and legal services while those with the lowest score included automotive, food and beverage, and retail.

COVID-19 and Employee Burnout

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is defined as:

“a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; reduced professional efficacy; and increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.”

It’s clear that burnout takes a negative toll on one’s mental health and that any worker – regardless of their industry – can suffer from it. Mental Health America’s survey notes that the following can contribute to burnout:

• Overwhelming workload

• Long working hours

• Chronic staff shortages

• An aggressive administrative environment

• A lack of support from managers

Mental Health America aimed to quantify burnout in the time of COVID-19 and its effect on mental health with the following results [Source]:

• 83 percent said they feel emotionally drained from their work.

• 48 percent said they feel more callous towards people since they took their current job.

• 23 percent said they really don’t care what happens to colleagues or clients at their job.

• 28 percent disagreed with the statement, “I have accomplished many worthwhile things at my job.”

From the data, it appears that being emotionally drained from work is common, but perhaps more concerning is that of those who “strongly agreed’ that they were emotionally drained from work, 99 percent felt that their workplace affected their mental health.

It is thought that unaddressed employee burnout can lead to more severe mental health concerns like anxiety and/or depression down the road. It is in everyone’s best interest, then, to nip burnout in the bud. If anxiety presents itself, it may need to be treated with a medication like buspar (Buspirone) or another anti-anxiety medication. If depression is present, it may need to be treated with a medication like bupropion (Wellbutrin XL) or another antidepressant.

The sectors with the lowest employee burnout score included education, non-profit, and social services while the highest employee burnout was seen in manufacturing, food and beverage, and retail.

COVID and Workplace Stress and Mental Health

Unfortunately, stress is rampant in the age of COVID-19 thanks to new challenges such as personal protective equipment needed in the workplace, physical distancing needed in the workplace, new technology demands as a result of a work-at-home environment, and new childcare needs due to closed schools, among other factors. And when asked, employees said all this stress is negatively affecting their mental health. Of respondents, 85 percent said that workplace stress affected their mental health. This could mean creation of mental health concerns such as anxiety and/or depression or the worsening of existing concerns.

It’s likely due to all these challenges that distractions are going up too. About 66 percent of people said that they feel distracted46 percent of people said they were always or often distracted or had an inability to concentrate because of their work environment.

And while all this stress that is outside an employee’s control may be creating or worsening mental health concerns, it’s unfortunately, the minority of workplaces that are actually seen as welcoming to those with mental illness. Fifty-six percent of respondents said that their employers do not provide a safe and welcoming environment for employees who live with mental illness.

When looking at mental health outcomes, the most positive industries were energy, education, and social services while the most negative industries were manufacturing, food and beverage, and retail.

How Employer’s Can Help Employee’s Mental Health During COVID-19

Of respondents, 56 percent said they were spending time looking for a new position, compared to only 40 percent of people who said the same thing in 2018. This statistic, along with the rest of the numbers above paints a fairly bleak picture for employees during COVID-19, so it’s critical that employers implement positive mental health initiatives to turn the tide.

When it comes to burnout, early intervention is key. According to MHA, the following could help prevent burnout:

• Encouraging those experiencing exhaustion to take a day off or helping them shift their workload

• Having leadership model desired behavior by making healthy choices a priority

• Sharing stress management techniques when on-boarding new employees

• Educating employees about the mental health policies and resources available to them

• Continuing to remind employees about stress management and even encouraging them to make use of benefits such as paid time off (PTO) or an employee assistance program (EAP)

Once burnout has taken hold, more severe measures may have to be taken to handle it. For example, for employees that are already experiencing gross cynicism or reduced professional efficacy, a change in supervisors, teams, projects, or even positions may be warranted.

The role of supervisor support is stressed multiple times in the Mental Health America Workplace Health Survey 2021. It’s not enough to offer resources and just leave employees on their own to mange their stress and protect their mental health. According to the MHA, supervisors should:

Be supportive of employees. Do this with regular check-ins that emphasize two-way feedback, acknowledge employee effort, and provide emotional support.

Be flexible. Appropriate flexibility benefits everyone. Supervisors should negotiate realistic expectations that focus on goals rather than hours logged with each employee and then help create a plan as to how to meet those goals.

Stay connected. Connection is crucial to employee satisfaction and overall health and supervisors need to play an active role, particularly in a virtual environment. For example, supervisors can instigate video calls to review stressors and coping techniques, or they can create a newsletter that focuses on healthy lifestyle activities such as an employee’s favorite exercise routines or recipes.

Model and practice self-care. Self-care can alleviate stress for the supervisor and provide a positive example for other employees. Examples of self-care include staying organized and prioritizing, taking frequent breaks, practicing meditation, engaging in breathing exercises, or video chatting with a loved one.

When it comes to supporting people with existing mental illnesses, it’s employers that show empathy, compassion, and flexibility who win the day. It’s incorporating this into the company culture that is needed. According to MHA, to provide a safe and welcoming environment to those with mental illness, the following should be considered:

• Hiring and training supervisors to feel comfortable providing emotional support

• Encouraging employees to talk to their supervisors about job stressors

• Encouraging supervisors to check in with employees regularly

• Providing proper recognition to employees for their efforts

• Providing additional resources for emotional support

• Training supervisors to be empathetic, patient, and flexible

No matter which of the above techniques an employer wishes to practice, the important part is to start now – even in the middle of the third wave of the pandemic. While employers who had healthy corporate cultures before COVID-19 have likely made the transition in this challenging time more successfully, there is no reason why any workplace can’t improve their overall mental health outcome.

About the Workplace Health Survey by Mental Health America

The Mental Health America Workplace Health Survey 2021 collected over 5,000 responses between the dates of February 13, 2020 and September 9, 2020. Most respondents (87 percent) were full-time employees and about 65 percent had an individual income of under $60,000 per year. Most people (about 63 percent) had a supervisor and supervised no one. When respondents were asked about their industry, the largest sector was healthcare with 24 percent and the smallest work sectors were automotive, energy, and legal services at under two percent each.

To read the full report by MHA, see here.

To get a comprehensive assessment of your workplace health by MHA, see here.



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