Ongoing Pandemic Takes Toll on Workers’ Mental Health

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. August 19, 2021

​After more than a year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress out the workforce. Soaring infection rates and the return of masking and social distancing are amplifying feelings of isolation and anxiety.

"The most common workplace stressors that contribute to mental health challenges among employees across all industries include concerns about getting exposed to the virus at work and employment security," said Christopher Razo, an attorney with Polsinelli in Chicago.

"The pandemic has brought us circumstances that were unexpected and continue to pose challenges, including to our mental health," said Amy Siegel Oran, an attorney with Kelley Kronenberg in West Palm Beach, Fla. "Employers should continue to acknowledge and address these challenges facing employees."

Front-line health care workers, particularly during the pandemic's height, "saw too many deaths on the job to move on as though it never happened," she said.

"For example, a nurse who hears the sounds of ventilators whenever he or she closes his or her eyes may not have suffered a physical injury under the [workers' compensation] act but is traumatized nonetheless," Oran added. "Other examples include witnessing death on a daily basis or holding the hands of strangers as they lost their battles with COVID-19 because their loved ones were not allowed to be present." In Florida, where she works, mental health injuries are compensable under the workers' compensation statute only if there were initial physical injuries, she noted.

A Society for Human Resource Management survey of 1,099 employees found that work-related concerns left more than 40 percent of employees feeling hopeless, burned out or exhausted as they grapple with lives altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the findings:

  • 37 percent of workers who do not or cannot telecommute think their pay and benefits have been threatened to a great extent, versus 22 percent of workers who telecommute full time during the pandemic.
  • 55 percent report often having little interest or pleasure in doing things since COVID-19 began.

It is natural to feel stress, grief and worry during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

[Does your workplace support employee well-being? Take the quiz.]

Ways to Cope with Stress

The CDC has noted that stress can cause:

  • Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry or frustration.
  • Changes in appetite, energy, desires and intentions.
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
  • Difficulty sleeping or nightmares.
  • Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes.
  • Worsening of chronic mental health problems.
  • Increased use of tobacco, alcohol and other substances.

"Mental health needs to be a priority for employers because these issues can lead to an ineffective workforce," Oran said.

The CDC recommended the following ways to cope with stress:

  • Take breaks from watching the news about the pandemic. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and disconnecting for a while.
  • Take care of your body through deep breaths, stretching or meditating; eating healthy, well-balanced meals; exercising regularly; getting plenty of sleep; avoiding excessive alcohol, tobacco and substance use; continuing with routine preventive measures as recommended by health care providers; and getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Make time to unwind.
  • Talk with others.
  • Connect with community- or faith-based organizations. If social distancing measures are in place, try connecting online.
SHRM Resource Hub Page
Mental Health

What Employers Can Do

Oran suggested that employers consider the following steps to improve employee mental health:

  • Give employees a paid day off for mental health.
  • Provide programs like lunch-and-learn sessions on how to cope with stress and stay calm in chaos.
  • Provide an employee assistance program and offer consultations with mental health counselors.
  • Give fitness tips and webinars on how to keep employees' minds and bodies healthy.
  • Encourage employees to use their paid time off.

Other tips for employers include:

  • Prioritize mental health in benefits plans and remind employees of offerings that may be especially helpful.
  • Use technology to offer mental health resources.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Offer emotional support.

"The most important piece of advice for employers is to make workers feel safe," Oran said. For example, employers can follow CDC masking guidelines, take employees' temperatures, station hand sanitizer and cleaning products throughout the workplace, encourage employees to stay six feet apart, and avoid closed-door meetings.

These steps can help, as even those who have been vaccinated worry about risking health by returning to the workplace, Razo said.

For those who are returning to the worksite, there may be more anxiety from the stress of a long commute, traffic and child care concerns, said Richard Phillips, an attorney with Swift Currie in Atlanta.

"Furthermore, for many employees in hands-on industries, they have continued to carry on in person in the workplace and have taken on additional responsibilities during the pandemic or worked additional hours because of a lack of staffing," he said.

"Open communication in the workplace and enacting policies that reflect the solutions thought up in said conversations will increase the sense of control of the things unique to the pandemic that are causing employees to face mental challenges," Razo said.

But he cautioned that employers generally should not solicit information from their employees about medical—physical or mental—conditions.

Proactively support employees who have worked hard during the pandemic and those who are returning for the first time to the office, Phillips said. There are many uncertainties on how the fall season and return to the workplace will unfold. "But working together to reach the new normal will help keep us all mentally healthy," he said.

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]



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