Mental Health Beyond the Pandemic
New research from the U.S. Census bureau indicates that although we all coped differently in 2020, many are experiencing common physical symptoms due to continuous exposure to stress.
- Researchers are comparing the impact of 2020 stressors to experiencing war or a terrorist attack.
- Even though the impact of the physical threat of the virus has diminished, employees continue to deal with a multitude of stressors.
- There are tools that employers can use to help employees cope in healthy ways.
Running the Marathon We Didn’t Sign Up For
Most marathon runners train for months, even years, to prepare for the physical and mental stress of running a marathon. These finely tuned athletes follow an established training schedule, a precise eating regimen and defined habits that will help them tune their bodies and minds to achieve the most successful outcome possible.
Yet for the past 13 months we’ve all been running a race of our own – many of us without the benefit of planning, training or tools – in the Mental Health Marathon of 2020 and beyond. A culmination of the pandemic shutdown, ongoing racial injustice, and now the newest hurdle, the stress of re-entering the world post-pandemic. Recent studies confirm what many of us have been feeling.
More than 42% of people surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety and depression as detailed by the Household Pulse Survey (HPS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2020. This compares to 11% when the same study was done January through June 2019. It is expected that many follow-up studies will be conducted as the mental health impact of the pandemic becomes more evident. Researchers are comparing its impact to that of experiencing war or a terrorist attack.
Pandemic Stress Brings on Health Consequences
In the October 2020 report, Stress in America™ 2020: A Mental Health Crisis, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a warning about the impact of the stressful events of 2020 to 2021 on long-term physical and mental health. The association warned that Americans faced a second pandemic – one that would persist even after the physical threat of the virus is behind us.
In March 2021, the APA published a follow-up report1 which shares findings of research conducted among U.S. adults in February 2021. Survey responses reveal that physical health may be declining due to the inability to cope in healthy ways to the pandemic stresses of 2020 and beyond. This is particularly true of parents, essential workers, young people and people of color.
The Harris Poll Survey findings include:
- A majority of adults (61%) reported experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic with more than two in five (42%) saying they gained more weight than they intended. Of this group, adults reported gaining an average of 29 pounds (with a median gain of 15 pounds).
- Two in three Americans (67%) said they are sleeping more or less than they wanted to since the pandemic started.
- Nearly one in four adults (23%) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Nearly half of parents (48%) said the level of stress in their life has increased compared to before the pandemic.
- Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future. More than half said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction again.
- Nearly half of Americans (47%) said they delayed or canceled health care services since the pandemic started.
The APA report elaborates on these findings and shares strategies to help individuals navigate this secondary crisis as the pandemic winds down in 2021. Suggested strategies include hosting device-free time at home, practicing self-care in 15- or 30-minute increments and staying connected with family and friends. To support individual efforts, employers also play a large role in the ongoing mental health of their employees.
How Employers and Managers Can Help
Cited in the Stress in America™ One Year Later, A New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns study, the APA offers the following tips for business owners and supervisors as the year plays out:
- Provide flexibility when and where you can. This allows employees to continue doing their jobs while handling new stressors and responsibilities at home.
- Provide support through one-on-one check-ins. Communicate to your staff that sick days apply to both physical and mental well-being.
- Keep communication levels high to remind employees what resources and tools are available to them through the company health care plan or add-on programming. This helps reduce uncertainty at work.
- Help employees prioritize what work is critical and what can wait to help avoid burnout.
- Allow employees time away for vaccinations and for recovery from side effects post-vaccination, if needed.
Benefit Program Insights from Katie Talarico, Employee Benefits Manager, KeyBank
“I don’t think any of us thought, at the beginning of lockdown last March, that we would still be wearing masks, separated from family and friends, with many still working from home more than a year after the pandemic forced lockdowns,” Talarico commented.
“Even with the diminishing physical threat of the virus, we need to remember that employees are still dealing with a multitude of stressors – grief over lost loved ones, loss of family income, additional responsibilities at home and more,” she commented. “We are all facing uncertainty of the future with children heading back to physical classrooms and adults stepping out into the world again. Re-entry anxiety is real, and support of our employee base continues to be a high priority at Key in 2021.”
In 2020, Key recorded an increase in the number of employees utilizing coping resources in the Live Well & Thrive program and those offered through Key’s medical plan, such as the Employee Assistance hotline. Most popular were tools that address anxiety and stress management and building resiliency. In addition to quarterly wellness challenges, Live Well & Thrive offers bite-sized programs aimed at boosting energy levels, relieving stress through meditation and chair yoga, and weigh-ins for those closely monitoring weight gain and loss. One-on-one coffee connect opportunities and larger Thriving Together conversations help employees virtually connect to share stories and inspiration.
Especially popular, and easily applicable to small business benefit programs, are mental and mood health apps – Key reimburses employees for their subscription – such as MyStrength and Sanvello (links below). “These self-serve options can make a big difference in how someone’s day or week goes,” Talarico said.
Employees have shared that these wellness opportunities and tools, as well as the flexibility and creativity of supervisors with scheduling, has made a big difference in the lives of Key employees in 2020.
“We will follow the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic closely and evolve our mental health support plan as needed. We are all in this marathon together.”