Mental health issues rising among workers

Sue-Ann Siegel takes a call as she works a shift monitoring the Montgomery County Hotline from her home office fielding calls including from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline March 18, 2020 in Chevy Chase, MD.

Katherine Frey | The Washington Post | Getty Images

The number of adults experiencing depression has tripled in the United States since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to a JAMA Network study, with more than one in four adults reporting symptoms of depression. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is considered a traumatic event that can cause physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological harm. The policies put in place to prevent the spread of the disease have introduced new life stressors. Furthermore, the unemployment rate surged, with more than 20 million people filing for unemployment between the start of the pandemic and mid-April. While the unemployment rate has come down to 7.9%, economists worry that the recovery could be losing momentum. 

Recent surveys by telecommuting platform FlexJobs also reveal rising levels of mental health concerns among workers. Before the pandemic, 5% of employed workers and 7% of unemployed workers said their mental health was poor or very poor. Now, 18% of employed and 27% of unemployed workers say they struggle with mental health issues.

The JAMA study found a correlation between socioeconomic status and depression. Its researchers concluded, “Individuals with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors (eg, job loss) reported a greater burden of depression symptoms. Post-Covid-19 plans should account for the probable increase in mental illness to come, particularly among at-risk populations.” 

Employers have been hesitant to address some of the side effects of mental health, said Brie Reynolds, a career development manager at FlexJobs. “When this started, employers were surprised to see productivity rise. They did not realize that employees were pushing themselves to their limits. But now workers are starting to feel burned out and are looking for resources to help with burnout symptoms,” Reynolds said.

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Workers can reduce some stress on their own by making some routine changes. Developing boundaries between office work hours and home life is the first step to avoiding burnout, Reynolds said. Turning off email notifications and engaging in personal activities will help separate and define your work-life balance. “Saying good morning and good night to your colleagues, even virtually, let’s them know when you are available and when you are away from work. It signals an important boundary.” 

Workers experiencing burnout also should reach out to their human resources department. “Often managers don’t know what benefits are available, especially when it comes to mental health. But your HR will be able to help get those resources,” said the FlexJobs expert.  

Past surveys indicate many workers have been afraid to take this step. A majority of employees, 68%, worry that reaching out about a mental health issue could negatively impact their job security, according to a 2019 study by Businessolver, a West Des Moines, Iowa-based health benefits administrator.

Mental health conditions are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning employers must make reasonable accommodations for workers with such disorders. However, employees have to be willing to disclose their need for modifications and accommodations. Individuals who are hesitant to disclose their conditions should be aware that medical privacy laws protect them and they don’t have to provide extensive details. 

Reynolds said individuals worried that they might be experiencing a mental health disorder can visit Mental Health America’s free anonymous screening. FlexJobs partnered with Mental Health American to conduct its surveys. 

Workers, mental health and productivity

According to Bank of America’s 2020 Workplace Benefits report, mental health resources are in high demand among employees.

“While the effects of these unprecedented times have yet to be fully understood, employees have already noted an increased strain on their physical and mental health, a greater impact on the interactions between all aspects of their well-being and increased impact of overall well-being on productivity,” the report said. It noted that when employees are asked what contributes most to their well-being (workplace productivity), mental wellness outranks physical health and financial health. 

Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at the bank says wellness is becoming more broadly defined by new generations. “Their expectations are high. The perception that Gen Z or millennials want to be on their own is wrong. In fact, we are seeing the opposite,” she said, noting that younger workers are more open to discussing their mental health at work.

Technology is offering news ways for individuals who feel isolated in the virtual world to find solace.

Text for Humanity was created to counter online negativity by allowing strangers to exchange complimentary messages. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jonathan Bean, the chief marketing officer at Sinch, a mobile engagement firm behind the free service, says the campaign has shifted, allowing anyone to send a message to a frontline worker during Covid-19.

Using SMS short code — a five to six-digit phone number that is used mainly for mass communication — Bean says that over 100,000 messages have been sent in over 90 countries, “What started as an idea to combat the societal issues was transformed into a messaging switchboard for well wishers. Texting is a personal way to get in contact with other people.”

A study by Dartmouth College in 2018 found that text-messaging-based interventions can be safe, and is a clinically promising tool to augment care for people with mental illness.

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