Coronavirus Creates Mental Health Crisis In American Workforce


More than a third of workers in the United States are currently struggling with mental health problems, ranging from moderate distress to severe mental illness. It’s according to a study conducted in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to hit the country. Three months after the start of the pandemic – faced with a tanking economy and a public health crisis in which nearly 100,000 people have died in the United States – and the mental health of workers is being tested like never before.

Unlike a natural disaster that has an end point followed by a cleanup or a recession where experts can predict recovery based on past economic downturns (each can be very traumatic in itself), we just don’t know what we waits, said Cheryl Carmin, psychologist at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University. And it’s incredibly stressful for most people.

“A lack of control fuels anxiety in a major way,” said Carmin. “There is also a sense of trauma here, because people are going through very difficult times.”

Essential workers struggle to continue and people are forced to leave the security of their homes to go to work without sufficient protection when the states reopen. Meanwhile, those who work from home continue to juggle their work with childcare or caring for elderly or sick parents, and others remain isolated and anxious. In addition to all this, the death toll continues to rise and many try to cope with mourning during a period of social distancing. All of this adds up to a perfect storm when it comes to mental health issues.

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The pandemic can be extremely stressful for parents who must provide child care and home education while being productive employees.

Seven in ten said it was the most stressful time of their entire career, according to a recent MarketWatch survey conducted at the start of the pandemic. And, as Gallup poll done at the end of March showed that 60% of American adults reported significant stress and worry on a daily basis.

“This pandemic shows us that mental health issues are not limited to a small minority in the workplace,” said Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Research shows us the magnitude of the problem, and it changes the conversation. “

Employers are starting to react. From small temporary initiatives – think about “music listening evenings” and Zoom digital fitness classes – to longer-term solutions such as expanding telehealth and therapy options in health insurance employees, many companies are trying to find a strategy that works for them. But there are calls to do much more. A survey carried out in April 2020 by Standard Insurance Company found that 91% of people companies should help employees manage their mental health issues, but less than a third of respondents say employers are very good or excellent at meeting their mental health needs.

In the United States, it has long been the responsibility of the individual to address mental health issues, and their challenges are often viewed as weaknesses. This has led many to believe that admitting mental health issues would postpone their careers and prevent some from seeking help. The April study, for example, found that only 38% of respondents felt comfortable asking employers for help because of the perceived stigma.

The coronavirus – with its dragging timeline and widespread impact – could change that.

The needle is evolving when it comes to recognizing and normalizing mental health problems and understanding that employers have to deal with them.Denise Rousseau, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Public Policy at Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University

Everyone is affected, including entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs. The executives have now been put in a situation where they, too, have struggled with child care, elderly care and productivity, said William Kassler, deputy chief health officer at IBM Watson Health. They have faced their own emotional challenges, and he thinks that will inevitably make them more responsive and more sensitive to the support and prioritization of mental health in the workplace.

“No one can predict what lies ahead, of course, but I think what we will see is a whole different kind of empathy, and this time it comes from top to bottom,” said Kassler. “This is what you need for real cultural change in an organization. ”

Even before the pandemic, some companies had become aware of the need to prioritize well-being.

Over the past five years, there has been increased employer awareness of workplace mental health, said Laurie Chamberlin, US recruiting president at Adecco Group North America. But despite some progress, she says the overall impact on these types of programs has generally been slow.

Now the pandemic has added a new emergency.

“Everyone, at all levels, has been thrown out of what was considered predictable and certain, and in this world with a ton of ambiguity,” said Carmin. “So you see employers trying everything they think will work to help employees feel better right now. “

Professional services company PWC, for example, offers “wellness coaching sessions” that employees can use when they want to. And content creation company Thunderbird Entertainment, with offices in Vancouver and Los Angeles, has introduced mental health benefits such as providing 24/7 virtual access to therapists as part of health insurance. employees, as well as free wellness sessions and Fridays without a meeting to avoid “zoom fatigue”. ”

The mindfulness app Headspace reported seeing more than 400% increase since mid-March in the number of requests from companies wishing to give access to their employees.

While these efforts to meet immediate needs are important, addressing the core of employee well-being requires a more fundamental overhaul of how a business engages with its employees, experts say, stressing the need to a more human and empathetic approach.

“This is all about building trust and relationships in new ways, despite the stress of adjustment,” said Scott Beth, director of diversity and inclusion at Intuit, a tax software company. In response to the pandemic, the company has implemented online tools for remote workers and access to mental health services. It has also expanded its family support leave policy, providing four weeks of paid leave to care for children or elderly family members, as well as an additional two weeks of paid sick leave for all employees to adapt to the closure of schools, work sites and daycare centers.

“Not everyone will come back to an office or a campus, I think, but they will feel connected and supported anyway,” Beth said of the company’s employees. “Some of them, who have mental health issues, may feel like they are being heard for the first time. For me, this is a big step forward. ”

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A sticker saying “I can’t wait to kiss you” is pictured as a man waits at a bus stop in central London.

Before the pandemic, Rob Farinella, CEO of the Atlanta Blue Sky-based advertising agency, saw working from home as a rare benefit reserved only for the top ten of its 28 employees. He doubted that people could achieve a high level of productivity if they were not in the office.

But in individual calls or group teleconferences, Farinella spoke with her employees about their emotional health and shared some of her own difficulties trying to stay positive amidst this great uncertainty. This has allowed him to foster a culture where people can now be much more open to “hard things”.

Seeing his colleagues tackle stress, anxiety and frustration in different ways, while remaining productive, he now understands the benefits of working remotely – and knows that feeling connected is more important for collaboration and cohesion than being in the same physical space. Many have told him that knowing that they can work from home in the near future helps them feel less anxious and stressed by the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“All of this completely transformed my perspective,” he said. “I feel like I’m rethinking everything. Working from the office will now be an option, not a mandate.

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From workers to CEOs, everyone is facing the pressures of the pandemic such as caring for children, caring for the elderly and financial worries.

However, more flexible homework policies are only possible for so-called knowledge workers who rely mainly on a laptop for their work. But for those who cannot work remotely – like those in healthcare, retail, hospitality, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, delivery services and all other industries where being at work means going to a job site – there is even more need to address the number of work-related mental health issues, said Carmin. Critical front-line workers are literally putting their lives on the line for a paycheck, and many are worried about bringing these health risks home.

Some companies are working to resolve these issues by announcing additional investments in mental health services specifically for these employees. Starbucks, for example, ad that employees and their family members will have access to 20 mental health sessions with a therapist or trainer each year. And CVS Health recently hired $ 1 million in mental health services for frontline workers after seeing a 200% increase in the use of virtual mental health visits compared to the same period last year.

Efforts like these by big companies tend to highlight the importance of services, Carmin said, and can inspire others with front-line workers to do the same.

Companies also need to review their grieving policies, she added. In 2017, Facebook, Airbnb and General Mills all extended mourning from one to four typical days allocated by most companies to up to 20 days of paid vacation. Although there have been no similar announcements of changes to bereavement policies due to COVID-19, with the number of deaths continuing to increase, it is likely that policies like these will need to be reviewed said Carmin.


Starbucks has started offering employees and family members 20 mental health sessions with a therapist or coach each year.

Ultimately, if we are to continue this pandemic awareness and empathy, experts say that companies must embrace the idea of ​​their workforce as a community, to be more flexible to mental health needs – both in the way we work. as the healthcare options provided – and to listen to and implement employee feedback.

“The needle is changing when it comes to recognizing and normalizing mental health problems and understanding that employers have to address them,” said Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Heinz College at the University. Carnegie Mellon.

Having an environment where “we are all in the same boat” can go a long way in creating a sense of community in mental health, said Rousseau.

Greater flexibility and understanding are also needed when it comes to insurance coverage, said Rousseau. Employers must focus on de-stigmatizing mental health issues and offer help. The goal is to help employees see mental health exams as a normal part of life, added Rousseau, similar to physical health exams.

A major overhaul of mental health will take time and, in many ways, we are only at the beginning of understanding the magnitude of the problem, says Rousseau. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can adjust and become more resilient much faster than we thought.

“What is new is not that problems like anxiety and depression are becoming more common because it was before coronavirus,” said Chamberlin. “What we see now is that people care more, they are ready to do something, the stigma fades quickly. “

“Now we are ready to turn this awareness into action,” she said, “and hopefully long-term action. “

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