How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Employees’ Emotional Health

...and what employers can do about it

While the world continues to grapple with uncertainty around COVID-19, the ripple effects of the crisis go beyond physical health concerns. Both personal and professional interactions must shift and change to follow safety guidelines while attempting to mitigate negative economic impact and emotional struggle.

It can be easy to forget about the impact on emotional health at an individual and population level. We examine three factors that contribute to a person’s mental state in this unique crisis, and some tips for employers to consider as employees return to work.

Stress overload

Between isolation, unpredictability, constant change and a lack of control that many are experiencing these days, stress can take a serious toll. Stress overload is a chronic state of vulnerability that is proven to make people more susceptible to developing or increasing physical and mental health problems.

Stress overload occurs when demanding events build up over time and overwhelm personal resources. According to the CDC, work-related factors that can exacerbate stress during the pandemic include concern about being exposed to the virus at work, uncertainty about job security, or adapting to a changed workspace or schedule. Employees are likely to be thinking about some of these factors as they return to work.

Undiagnosed and undertreated mental health

The pandemic is intensifying mental health symptoms for individuals already at risk. Our data shows that 52% of individuals are at risk of mental health conditions, and 75% of those at risk have never received care. It takes an average of 10 years for a person to seek help for mental health symptoms. This means a large percentage of the population is living with untreated symptoms for undiagnosed mental health conditions — even before COVID-19.

For businesses, the impact reaches the bottom line. Untreated mental health conditions significantly affect employee retention, absenteeism and safety incidents in organizations. In fact, depressed employees are 20-40% more likely to leave their current job, and 62% of the time that employees miss work is due to mental health symptoms. Taking a “mental health day” is a real thing, but it’s likely not enough for employees to be at their best.

Social determinants of emotional health

Emotional health isn’t tied to a single incident or circumstance. How and where we work, how we interact with our friends and family, and our sense of financial security all impact our emotional health, and they have all drastically changed since the pandemic hit. Factors such as financial stress, job insecurity or loss, social support, risk of domestic violence, and workplace or family conflict can be significantly amplified during this time.

Collectively, these factors are called social determinants of emotional health. They’re the surrounding contributors to a person’s overall emotional state both directly and indirectly. Knowing that an individual’s life circumstances are often not visible or public, it can be hard for employers to spot red flags and indications that a person is at risk for low emotional health.

What employers can do

As COVID-19 intensifies stress overload, undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions, and social determinants of emotional health, the effects can significantly impact an individual’s ability to be effective at home and at work. Recently, the World Health Organization stated a need for substantial investment in services for mental health to avert a crisis in the coming months. Fortunately, there are steps employers can take to help employees find these services and achieve a pathway to effective care.

One of the most important actions is proactive outreach. People suffering from mental health symptoms are sometimes dealing with external or internal stigma and may be reluctant to vocalize their concerns. Some are in denial, and others simply believe they are too busy to address something like emotional health.

Proactive outreach takes the burden off of the person who is suffering and introduces them to resources that can help improve emotional health. Busy and overwhelmed employees may be most interested in tools available to identify risk factors and red flags that can shorten the journey to quality mental health care.

Periodic, ongoing monitoring and follow-up is also important. Checking in on someone to encourage them to continue the positive momentum, treatment and self-care is a great way to keep them on the right path.

Strong leadership is vital for an organization during a crisis such as COVID-19 to keep their employees healthy and address emotional health concerns. But leaders should also be leading by example — taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of employees, so that everyone is working together toward a healthy, productive environment.