The COVID crisis has created mental health issues that cannot be ignored.
COVID-19 has changed life as we know it, and headlines have focused mainly on physical health and wellness as well as the way our daily habits must change—from physical distancing to wearing masks. Farther from the front pages has been the critical issue of mental health, and data suggests we’re facing serious challenges related to depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion.
A brand new study by Qualtrics identifies the nature of the global mental health crisis and provides data that sheds light on the issues people are facing. It provides insights about the despair. The recent study of 2,700 people included a majority from the US (35% of the sample), in addition to people in the UK, France, Germany, Singapore, Australia and New Zeeland. Its respondents represented a variety of industries from food service and retail to manufacturing, technology, education, healthcare, government and more. It tapped the opinions of those who work from an office, those who newly work remote (the significant majority of the sample—58%), those who have always worked remote and more.
Here are some of the key points:
- 67% of people report higher levels of stress since the outbreak of COVID-19.
- 57% say they have greater anxiety since the outbreak.
- 54% say they are more emotionally exhausted.
- 53% say they feel sadness day-to-day.
- 50% feel they are more irritable.
- 42% report their overall mental health has declined.
The challenges aren’t limited to frontline essential workers. In fact, those in all kinds of industries and roles are affected including: individual contributors (44%), mid-level managers (40%) and C-level execs (41%). All of these groups report declines in their mental health.
In addition to the human toll, these mental health challenges also have implications for work since people also report their productivity has decreased. They say they have difficulty concentrating (28%), take longer to accomplish a task (20%), have difficulty thinking (15%), procrastinate challenging work (12%) and have difficulty juggling tasks and responsibilities (12%).
The statistics are sobering. Mental health has always been an issue in the US. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness, and at least 8.4 million Americans provide care to a person with emotional or mental illness. In addition, depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
It’s logical that we are stressed. My good friend Lucy used to have a bumper sticker that read, “If you’re not upset, you’re not paying attention.” At the time, it was aligned with her activist personality, but it is apt today more than ever. It’s natural to feel off-kilter or down. In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit says when catastrophes happen, it would actually be illogical to feel normal. Abnormal circumstances demand we adjust, adapt and find a new equilibrium. To do otherwise would be less rational—and less sane.
Solnit also makes the point that circumstances don’t dictate mental wellness. Often mental health issues are most significant in those who had emotional challenges before a crisis. While the pandemic is creating trauma for all of us, it does not need to define our mental health and we can feel empowered about how we respond.
So, how can we support ourselves and others through this crisis?
First, get educated. There are plenty of organizations to help with the myriad of mental health issues people face, from suicide to eating disorders and anxiety to substance abuse. While I am not a mental health expert, there are plenty of resources* available. MentalHealth.gov or the National Institute of Mental Health are useful starting points whether you’re seeking help yourself or looking for guidance in supporting others.
Help others. We are all wired for connection and in hard times, our human instinct is to contribute. Be attuned to the wellbeing of others, demonstrate you care and ask questions. In the Qualtrics study, almost half (47%) of workers said their manager wasn’t tuned into their wellbeing. Of those who didn’t think their manager cared, 69% said their mental health had declined and 61% said they were less productive. In her book, Solnit points out the value of mutual aid. Rather than those who “have” providing for those who “have less”, widespread disasters can create an opportunity for a more mutual sharing of resources and support. Managers need to be strong and visionary, but they can also be authentic and empathetic. Just as your coworker might be able to talk you off the figurative cliff today, you may also be able to offer help tomorrow. When you’re stronger, give and when you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
Focus on purpose. We can generate a sense of meaning when we are able to make a unique contribution and feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. Unless you are a healthcare worker or serving on the frontlines in another way, it may seem as though you’re being asked to do—seemingly—so little. Your best contribution is staying home. Immediately after 9/11, grass roots systems were set up to deliver critical supplies to rescue efforts and in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boats were launched to find people and bring them to safety. These actions were more tangible and may have felt more personal. Today, your greatest purposes have to do with teaching children at home or supporting older people. In addition, there is purpose in avoiding actions like shopping or socializing. While this may feel more distant and less purpose-driven, you can remind yourself it is no less significant.
Establish routine. Routines can be normalizing and help our sense of equilibrium. Set regular times for your day—from getting out of bed to having meals or taking breaks. Reach out to others and set routines with them as well. Perhaps it’s a Tuesday morning virtual water cooler chat with colleagues or a Friday afternoon virtual “stand up” meeting to close out the week. These kinds of activities bring pattern and predictability to hours that could otherwise be empty or isolating.
Communicate. A lot. Most people in the study (90%) wanted at least weekly communication from their companies, 57% said they would like communication every-other-day and 29% said daily. The deluge of information can feel overwhelming lately, but a big part of mental wellbeing is feeling connected. Staying in communication with others you trust can be helpful to them and you. In fact, considering those with whom they worked, people reported the greatest levels of comfort talking about mental health with a coworker (36%), their manager (34%) or someone in HR (20%). Says Ryan Smith, Co-Founder and CEO of Qualtrics, “Now more than ever, people need clear and consistent communication, easy-to-access tools to help them do their jobs and opportunities to connect informally with their teams.” In the study, people reported being appreciative when someone asked directly how they were doing, and they especially appreciated a phone call to check in. There are plenty of resources that provide you with tips on how to communicate effectively—by asking questions, listening and resisting the urge to offer advice. The main thing is to demonstrate you care.
Focus on growth. Trauma through COVID-19 is widespread, but according to Solnit, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) does not have to be an automatic outcome. It is also possible to achieve post-traumatic growth. In the Journal of Traumatic Stress, scientists Tedeschi and Calhoun published key elements of growth. While they were published pre-COVID, they are relevant today. These included:
- Greater appreciation for life
- Enhanced relationships with others
- Seeing expanded possibilities
- Increased personal strength
- Spiritual growth
Give yourself permission to be down or off your normal game. After all, things are far (very far) from normal. But also motivate yourself to learn, develop and grow. Be grateful to others and be grateful for what you have. Reach out and make connections with people. Remind yourself you will get through this and there will be a new normal on the other side.
Mental health is critically important for individuals, for teams, for companies and for society as a whole. While these are traumatic times, they don’t have to be damaging. Get educated and focus on helping others. In addition, focus on your greater purpose and establish predictable routines. Stay in contact with people and be attuned to their wellbeing. Finally, focus on growth. This crisis will change us. But the data is now telling us what so many of us are feeling—we must pay attention to mental health and help ourselves and each other be as mentally healthy as possible.
*For those who need support, the NAMI helpline is 800-950-NAMI (6264).