SHRM Study: Lower-Income Earners, Women, Minorities Face Greater Mental Health Challenges

Many groups disproportionately affected by depression, job burnout

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS May 4, 2021
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SHRM Study: Lower-Income Earners, Women, Minorities Face Greater Mental Health Challenges

​The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on working Americans' mental health, but some groups have been disproportionately affected by depression and feel more emotionally drained or "burned out" by their jobs than others.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, new research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) highlights the psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on employed Americans. More than a year into the pandemic, widespread symptoms of depression and of feeling emotionally exhaused persist. Of note, working women and younger employees reported experiencing burnout at significantly higher rates than men and older workers, respectively.

"There's no shortage of challenges facing Americans right now—the COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis, an economic crisis and a mental health crisis," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of SHRM. "Now more than ever, employers must be alert and look for signs that may indicate employees are hurting and take concrete actions to help them as we start returning to work."

"What we know is the pandemic has uprooted the daily routines and responsibilities of so many employees in our country, and it's causing anxiety and depression," said Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, a nonprofit that addresses the needs of people living with mental illness. "The American workplace was unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it would have on workers."

SHRM surveyed 578 employed Americans March 25-29, weighting the data to reflect the U.S. adult population. The responses were compared to results from a SHRM survey of employed adults conducted in April and May 2020. 

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Mental Health

Workers Feel Burned Out

While millions try to integrate their professional and personal responsibilities, 48 percent of U.S. workers overall feel "used up" at the end of the workday, while another 41 percent report feeling burned out from their work. SHRM's survey also showed that 32 percent of respondents who are working remotely report often feeling tired or having little energy, while 25 percent of those who go to work in person report feeling the same.

"2020 was an anomaly of a year," said Christine Randazzo, co-leader of consultancy PwC's rewards and benefits practice. "From the pandemic to the political unrest to the social justice movement, it was difficult for many people to cope with everything going on while still protecting their mental health."

Employers have responded, she noted, by introducing or expanding well-being programs that range from access to mental health coaches and therapists to mental health days off.

[Related SHRM article: One Year into the Pandemic, COVID-19 Fatigue Takes Hold]

Lower-Income Workers

Among the groups that faced greater mental health challenges over the past year are workers with lower household incomes. In SHRM's survey, those with reported household incomes of $60,000 or less were more likely to report experiencing depressive symptoms often; this was particularly true of those who earned $30,000 or less. 

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When asked about job burnout, however, lower-paid workers—often performing nonmanagerial work that is traditionally referred to as "blue collar"—were less likely to report feelings of being "used up" and emotionally drained by jobs than were midlevel workers in the $30,000 to $60,000 range, who reported the highest rates of burnout.

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Gender Differences

Women had higher rates of job burnout than men, with nearly half of working women (49 percent) reporting that they feel emotionally drained by their work—16 percentage points higher than working men.

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Women have consistently reported feeling symptoms related to depression more than men have reported over the past year, although both have shown improvement since pandemic lockdowns first became widespread:

  • In April 2020, 25 percent of women reported feeling bad about themselves, or that they are a failure "often," compared to 21 percent of men.
  • In March 2021, 17 percent of women reported these symptoms of depression, compared to 11 percent of men.

A factor to consider is whether men may be less likely than women to admit feeling depressed and emotionally drained.

Children at Home

While child-rearing responsibilities—which fall disproportionately to women—are often noted as a cause of stress, the survey showed that having children at home can also aid emotional well-being: 43 percent of working Americans without children in their household report feeling burned out and emotionally drained from work, compared to 34 percent of those living with children.

Racial/Ethnic Differences

While there were no significant differences between the percentage of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) workers and white workers who reported they often experience depressive symptoms, over one-third of BIPOC working Americans reported that they have sometimes felt down, depressed or hopeless over the past few weeks (36 percent), compared to about one-quarter of white working Americans (26 percent).

Generational Differences

The youngest workers also seem to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic—they consistently report experiencing poor mental health outcomes at higher rates than older workers.

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Employed older Millennials were more likely to say they have experienced symptoms of burnout compared to other generations.

"This data underscores how mental health and our work/life are inextricably connected," Taylor said. "Above all, we want to ensure that HR is there for employees—ready with the resources and tools they need to help the workforce. If we're not prioritizing our employees' mental health, we're not doing our jobs."

[Related SHRM article: Employers Believe Many Well-Being Programs Are Ineffective]

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