An increase of anything from 10% to 40% is substantial. It’s a nice increase if it represents a change in your salary, but it’s not good news if it’s an increase in the incidence of mental health disorders and substance abuse. Unfortunately, those numbers represent the latter.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on America’s health and mortality statistics in 2020-2021. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms during the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 adults reporting these symptoms from January to June 2019.
In addition to depression and anxiety reaching epidemic proportions, KFF reports 36% of adults reported difficulty sleeping, 32% have had struggles with eating, and 12% have increased their alcohol consumption or substance use. It’s evident that many Americans are suffering and are having difficulty getting through the day.
Mental health issues in the workplace
Fear of contracting the virus has certainly increased anxiety for many Americans, but for millions, the loss of their job or a reduction in their income has not only been harmful financially, but their mental health has also been seriously impacted.
Research from prior economic downturns shows that job loss is associated with increased depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem and may lead to higher rates of substance abuse or suicide. During the pandemic, adults with a job loss or lower incomes report higher rates of symptoms of mental illness than those without job or income loss (53% vs. 32%).
Many businesses have suffered extreme financial hardship themselves. They’ve had to make cutbacks in the number of employees on the payroll, as well as the rate of pay for those employees they could keep on the job. They’re not the root cause of the rise in mental disorders, but many people see employers as being necessary participants in making good mental health for their employees a top priority.
[ Related read: Is mental illness technically considered a disability ]
How working from home has impacted mental health
Many employees were forced to work from home at the pandemic's start and during its peak. Offices were closed, travel to meet with clients was disrupted, and employees were forced to work from an office in their home or at their kitchen table. Some people loved it, and some loathed it.
Love it or hate it, remote work has been stressful for many workers. As a result, mental health care providers report a marked increase in workplace anxiety and stress. This rise in mental disorders has been tied to three distinct triggers: isolation, workload, and fatigue.
- Isolation: For many, being physically disconnected from co-workers has left them feeling they have nowhere to turn when they feel anxious or stressed. They’ve lost their support network, which is crucial for good mental health. Isolation has led to loneliness for those employees that flourish with interaction at work.
- Workload: Working from home has increased the workload for many, much of it self-induced, but still detrimental to mental health. Particularly for those who don’t have a dedicated room in their home to serve as their office, the lines have blurred between working from home and being home from work.
- Fatigue: Many employees are more prone to burnout now because of the aforementioned isolation and workload, and fatigue has set in. They’re feeling the strain of having one Zoom call after another, some directly tied to their job duties and some being catch-ups with co-workers. Ironically, these video meetings are triggering fatigue and leaving participants feeling more disconnected.
Seeking mental health treatment has been a challenge for many workers. KFF reports that 23% cited affordability as a barrier to pursuing treatment, and almost 20% said they were too busy or couldn’t get time off work.
[ Related read: 7 tips for working from home as a first-timer ]
Employers can foster better mental health for employees
An unhealthy workforce profoundly impacts a company’s bottom line, as evidenced by the many small businesses that have struggled, or failed, to keep their doors open. In addition to being supportive of their employees, crafting better mental health just makes good financial sense.
A few practical changes by a company can dramatically improve the mental health of their remote team members. Some are:
- Hosting regular summits on mental health
- Sending weekly stress management tips via email
- Highlighting Mental Health Awareness Month
- Inviting employees to take “mental health days”
- Requiring a ten-minute break between meetings
- Implementing “meeting-free” days each month
- Scheduling smaller-scale meetings so employee contributions are personally acknowledged
- Helping employees create and keep a regular schedule, with planned breaks from screens
- Having managers schedule time with their direct reports for regular one-on-one catchups
- Organizing social events – in person where possible, or virtually if necessary.
Implementing these changes is a strong show of support by a business, but employees can proactively do their share to avoid or lessen this onslaught of mental disorders in the workplace.
[ Related read: The truth about disabilities in the workplace ]
How employees can help themselves
If you work remotely and would like to take action to improve your mental health, here are five tips and habits you can put into practice.
- Prioritize taking care of your mental health. A calendar full of meetings, tasks, deadlines, family obligations, physical hygiene, and so many other things can push taking care of your mental health right off the list. Take regular timed breaks and put some clothes in the laundry, check-in on the kids, or just take a few minutes to stretch and breath.
- Don’t try to be perfect. Many employees feel the pressure to prove their value to their employers, often out of fear of losing their jobs. Don’t let the quest for perfection discourage you from seeking help from your manager and colleagues.
- Create a routine and stick to it. Having a routine can strengthen your mental health by reducing the number of decisions you have to make in a day. In addition, having your time organized creates more mental space and will boost your energy.
- Stay connected with co-workers. You’ve probably forged some close ties with some of your colleagues. You can both support each other’s mental health by updating each other on what you’re working on and how you’re feeling.
- Leave your house during the day. A few minutes on the back patio or a walk around the block can be big stress relievers. It will give you a chance to take a “brain break” and refresh yourself. You’ll find yourself being more productive by getting some fresh air during the day.
Don't go it alone if you’re struggling with your mental health from loneliness, depression, or anxiety. Reach out to someone you trust, speak to your doctor, or find a mental health professional. Make your mental health a priority.
Having grown up in upstate New York, Bob Phillips spent over 15 years in the financial services world and has been making freelance writing contributions to blogs and websites since 2007. He resides in North Texas with his wife and Doberman puppy.
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