The Mental Health Impact of the Pandemic

As we enter the third year of living with the pandemic, emotions remain high and span the gamut including grief, fear, loneliness, loss, guilt, frustration, anger and helplessness. While we’ve all been affected in different ways and to varying extents, the virus has threatened us all; as both the scientific community and world governments try to get ahead of the disease, we are both heartened and frustrated by the back-and-forth of progress and setbacks. Coping with our existence in the age of COVID requires understanding both the physical and mental toll it’s taking on almost all workers. In a 2021 study, the American Psychological Association reported that 59% of workers said that stress impacts their performance. Businesses that acknowledge and deal with mental health issues will have a better, more resilient workforce; this will ultimately boost both their overall organizational performance as well as their ability to attract and retain top talent.

We have to build back with a major concern for mental health of employees. Stress, depression, PTSD, and burnout is invading all levels of organizations. There are a number of steps that can be taken as organizations plan for the recovery:

Concern: Mental health issues are too often stigmatized or ignored

It’s critical that we bring mental health issues into the spotlight so that deal with them. These issues permeate every level in the organization, yet not enough organizations offer mental health services.

Suggested actions:

Organizations need to understand the importance of mental health and wellness programs. If programs don’t exist, organizations need to inquire about making them available, either through a third-party healthcare provider or in-house. The CEO and other leaders must destigmatize these issues by communicating that the organization will support employees with mental health issues and will oppose all discrimination of people with mental health issues. Where programs do exist, organizations must make sure that all employees are aware of mental health support that is available. Generally, communications directly from the CEO carry a great deal of weight; we suggest a company-wide email or town hall meeting reviewing data on the mental health toll resulting from the pandemic and recognizing that it affects employees and their families.

Concern: Mental Health isn’t Addressed by Top-Level Leaders

Mental health issues can’t simply be a talking point; companies need to show a commitment to improvement and action.

Suggested actions

Assign a high-level executive as a champion who has the authority (and the budget) to make decisions, implement new policies, or provide opportunities for support. Ideally, this is someone with a positive reputation within the company as a caring, employee-oriented leader, and who reports directly to the CEO.  This executive should also form a task force with employees across all levels of the organization to design policies and procedures for working with employees with mental health concerns. This group should plan a Mental Health Day in which information, programs, company facilities and policies will be distributed.

Concern: Organizational Operations Don’t Support Mental Health

There’s no longer a “typical” nature of work. The chaos created by the last two years has thrown everything into flux but not all organizations have pivoted well to deal with new realities. As more and more of daily life become a new normal, organizations need to review their operations with a mental health lens.

Suggested actions

Recognize what operational issues might increase stress, such as a requirement that all employees must work in the office full-time. Even pre-pandemic, there is workplace stressors, and work-life balance – or integration – issues. The top five causes of stress before the pandemic were long hours, heavy workload, job insecurity, lack of autonomy to carry out one’s responsibilities and tight deadlines; these issues were only exacerbated during the past two years. Determine the stresses in your company through employee surveys and publicize the results and subsequent actions. It’s important to be transparent even when the results aren’t positive, or when the challenges are great. Hold focus groups to discuss stress and ways of reducing it within your company. When possible, add flexibility to your operations to support unique needs of the individual employee. 

Concern: Resources Aren’t Available or Accessible

Mental Health issues have been stigmatized or ignored for too long; organizations must ensure that their health plans include treatment and therapy for mental health for both employees and their families.

Suggested actions

Mental health professionals must be available to employees and their families either through Employee Assistance Programs or the medical department. The mental health champion and the task force must plan and implement a mental health strategy for the firm, which includes making sure that mental health professionals are available to diagnose, counsel, and refer employees and their families who seek help. Someone experienced in setting up mental health programs in industry should be a consultant to the task force. The task force should also ensure that mental health coverage is part of the health insurance program and that the coverage is adequate for inpatient and outpatient treatment. The confidentiality of the process must be guaranteed for any mental health program to succeed in bringing help to employees and their families

As your organization grapples with these issues, realize that stress affects different people differently. A Harvard Business Review article reporting on a 2021 survey pointed out that the greatest mental health challenges were among the younger, LGBTQ, Black, and Latinex workers. Comparisons by age showed Millennials were particularly affected by COVID with 50% of 3000 respondents reporting struggling with daily tasks but only 37% of Gen Z, 32% of Gen X, 14% of Boomers and 3% of older adults. Any mental health initiatives should include access to a diverse group of counselors.

In additional to helping employees dealing with mental health issues, it’s just as critical to train leaders to recognize and deal with mental health issues that arise in the workplace, ideally under the guidance of a professional. Manager training might include how to handle both extreme outbursts as well as issues that affect performance, such as frequent conflicts, poor decision making, tardiness, absences unacceptable behavior. Managers must know how to help employees needing assistance. They must understand that these issues should be kept confidential with the exception of any performance-related reporting to designated people in HR.

It’s clear that these are steps all organizations need to take. The Work and Well Being survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2021 described the effects of COVID on the mental health of workers and the changes in their work experiences and expectations. In the period between April 2020 and August 2021, the incidence of depression increased from 20.2% to 31.9% of the working population. During that same period the incidence of experienced anxiety increased from 28.2% to 37.2%. Anxiety and depression are debilitating to job performance and to life satisfaction. While these figures are indicative of the need for mental health assistance during the pandemic, their survey revealed that even before the pandemic 59% of employees saw the need for organizations to prioritize mental health in their businesses.

The survey also found that workers complained of being cognitively taxed; they experienced difficulty in thinking, decision making, planning and problem solving. As an example, the study cited the stress associated with Zoom-centric business relationships, which stressed people out and made many hyper-vigilant about their on-screen appearance. Others had to cope with remote schooling, small or shared workspaces, or ill family members. Yet in spite of this, fewer than 20% of remote workers wanted to return to the workplace full time, preferring some type of hybrid accommodation. And it’s worth noting that a whopping sixty-five percent of workers continued to work at their worksite along with other employees throughout the pandemic, enduring the normal work stresses along with the fears engendered by COVID.

While they may have the best of intentions, not all businesses have the resources to provide the optimum amount of mental health initiatives. However, there are procedures that can be provided with minimal financial investments. Communication from the CEO to all employees recognizing the mental health issues that employees and families may be experiencing and expressing understanding of those issues involves no expense. The CEO can also offer on what employees can do when faced with a mental health problem and including local resources for treatment, emergency numbers including Alcoholics Anonymous, Suicide Hotline, Abuse hotlines with a statement that the company will be supportive of employees experiencing such difficulties.


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