The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout are creating nothing short of a mental health crisis for American workers, which isn’t surprising when you consider that more than 40 million Americans have recently lost their jobs and millions more have had their work hours or pay reduced. Of those fortunate enough to still have jobs, many are working long hours at home, away from colleagues but constantly connected through always-on digital channels and email. Others are in roles that require contact with the public and come with a higher risk of infection as a result.
Add to that the stress of sheltering in place, with some individuals isolating alone and others contending with an overload of “togetherness.” Any of these factors on their own are enough to negatively affect mental health, but given how much we still don’t know about COVID-19 and what life will be like for the foreseeable future, the ongoing uncertainty can be most damaging of all.
For a deeper understanding of the mental health of American workers, the company I work for, Morneau Shepell, a provider of technology-enabled HR and well-being services, created the Mental Health Index TM (MHI). The monthly MHI measures the mental health of the population, relative to a benchmark of mental health indicators collected over the past three years. Each month we poll a representative sample of 5,000 Americans on their levels of stress, anxiety, depression, optimism, work productivity, and isolation, as well as the impact of issues that affect Americans in general.
Until April 2020, one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, the index saw deviation in certain groups and some indication of increased work stress. In April 2020, however, the index showed a sharp drop compared to the benchmark, highlighting a serious decline in the quality of Americans’ mental health. May brought only a modest improvement, in spite of about half of all the states beginning the reopening process. As a result of the added COVID-19 stress, the mental health of the average worker is now similar to those most seriously distressed before the pandemic.
The drop in mental health was as widespread as it was swift, with 66% saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health. Within this time, mental health moved from being an issue for some to an issue for the majority. Concerns varied, but in general, Americans are currently most worried about the financial impact of the pandemic (49%), losing a loved one (40%), getting sick (37%), the uncertainty around how the virus will impact family and relationships (25%), and work strain/overwork due to the pandemic (23%).
Groups of people reporting the lowest quality of mental health due to the pandemic include women, younger employees, those living in households with five or more adults, people with one child, those in the Northeast, those earning less than $30K per year, and workers without access to an employee assistance program (EAP).
Why and how to measure employees’ mental health
These findings should cause concern among employers because mental health is a key driver of quality of life, productivity, and participation in the economy. Both employers and workers take this for granted far too often. That’s bound to change due in part to COVID-19, as more employers recognize the direct connection between their employees’ mental health and their bottom line. Employee mental health directly affects healthcare costs, worker productivity, and talent retention. Here are some first steps that employers can take to address their workers’ mental well-being.
Make employee mental health a corporate priority
It’s clear that some workers are in crisis and could be at risk for longer-term mental health issues, which can impact business productivity, healthcare costs, and disability absence. Making employee mental health a priority can provide a lifeline to at-risk employees.
Ask employees how they’re doing and how you can help
If you can’t measure well-being, you can’t effectively manage it. Asking important questions and wanting to hear their honest answers can provide a window into your employees’ experience.
Promote and provide access to help
Employers can call attention to mental health warning signs and openly discuss the importance of mental health as a part of overall well-being to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health support and promote usage. One way to foster this supportive environment is by offering EAP services to provide help to those who may not have access to professional help otherwise.
Prioritizing mental health drives business results
For each of us, our mental health has a direct impact on how we live our lives, how we perform in our jobs, and how we participate and contribute to society at large. Given the extreme amounts of biological, economic, and sociological pressure today’s workers are experiencing, mental health is more important today than ever, and anxiety over returning to the office will likely exacerbate mental health issues for many workers.
COVID-19 has brought attention to how companies are responding to the needs of employees, which companies are supporting their employees in multidimensional ways, and which ones are leaving employees to fend for themselves. Employers who prioritize mental health will likely have an advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining key talent—a business imperative, regardless of the climate.
Paula Allen is senior vice president of research, analytics, and innovation at Morneau Shepell.