Employee Mental Health Nears a Crisis Point in Continuing Pandemic

Stressed couple looking at their finances
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The tensions of 2020 are taking their toll on workers.

Stress and anxiety are hitting an all-time high in the global workforce, with 70% of people saying they’ve hit all-time peaks this year, according to a study by Oracle (ORCL) and HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence. And it’s much more than simply worrying about COVID-19.

People’s career routines were upended in March and the fallout from that sudden shift has been ongoing. Employees reported the pressure they feel to meet performance standards has jumped 42%, while the stresses around both handling routine tasks and juggling unmanageable workloads were up 41%. And the risks of burnout are increasing as the lines between the personal and professional worlds blur.

“The pandemic has put mental health front and center – it’s the biggest workforce issue of our time and will be for the next decade,” said Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence. “It’s something that workers across every industry and country are dealing with.”

The mental health issues of the pandemic on the workforce won’t go away with the arrival of a vaccine, either, adds James Lake, M.D., a California-based psychiatrist.

“Even after antivirals and vaccines are developed and contain the spread of the viral pandemic, a mental health pandemic could go on for years, fueled by anticipated long-term economic and social impacts,” he noted in a recent column for Psychiatric Times.

Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist and co-founder at consulting firm Thrive Leadership, agrees. The long-term effects of the pandemic, she says, are still unclear, but even after there’s some sort of return to normalcy with people’s jobs, she expects employees will remain uneasy.

“We’ll see a reduction in these mental health concerns, but they’re not going to go away,” he says. “People are going to wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s going to take time, and consistent positive news for those to slowly reduce over time. It’s not unlike what we’ve seen people who have gone through trauma. The ripple effect is there for a while. People are going to be more vulnerable to these conditions until we see a return to a somewhat normal work environment.”

Employees are certainly looking to the companies that hired them for more support. While over half of the employers surveyed by Workplace Intelligence and Oracle have added mental health services, 76% of the workers surveyed said their company should be doing more to protect the mental health of its employees – and 42% said their productivity has suffered because of workplace stress, anxiety or depression.

It's the longer-term effects of these stresses that managers might need to be wary of, however. As burnout occurs now, whether it’s due to pandemic concerns, financial worries, childcare challenges or the blurring of the work/home line, most people will maintain their employment status quo during the pandemic, since it’s guaranteed income.

As conditions improve, though, a notable number of workers could go on an active hunt for something new.

“I think there will be a rise in turnover, once the economy starts improving,” says Swody. “People are going to be looking for more growth and development. They’re going to be looking for challenges. They’re going to be looking for a company where they feel more like a person and less like a cog in the system.”

There are also significant innovation concerns for businesses.

Creativity, the lifeblood of many successful companies, is best fostered in an environment where people are comfortable and relaxed. While many workers have settled into a new routine at this point, the pressure of a third wave of COVID-19, diminished social supports (such as seeing friends and family), and the current political environment have erased those gains.

The Journal of the American Psychiatric Association, in April, published a paper calling the mental health fallout from COVID-19 “a second pandemic,” noting the long-term psychological effects on people who survive the disease, as well as family members and front line workers. The United Nations followed suit in May.

For employers, that means the current focus on mental health will have to continue long after the pandemic ends. It will take consistent positive news to help workers who were traumatically affected by the virus. That means regular check-ins from managers to create a personal connection, giving transparent updates on the state of the business (both negative and positive) and not just increasing access to mental health options such as therapy, but encouraging them and removing any stigma around them.

“Companies that prioritize people are going to do fine,” says Swody. “Others, not so much.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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