Nearly every job involves some degree of stress, but there’s cause for concern when an individual’s overall quality of life deteriorates. If workplace stress was an issue before the pandemic, COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated it. Issues pertaining to finances, employment, health, and personal grief are new realities for millions of working individuals at one time. These challenges are from where most workplace pandemic anxiety stems from. Additionally, many find remote work disorienting, while the risk of exposure to coronavirus and its variants amidst office reopenings is a deterrent to others.
While the experience of living through a global pandemic feels isolating, research shows that most people share similar COVID-related struggle. Prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 44 million American adults reported having a mental illness in 2016. Additionally, 71% of adults detailed symptoms of stress, such as headaches or feeling anxious. Now, the CDC reports that the pandemic has caused a spike in rates of anxiety and depression among American adults. People are exhausted by the amount of change that the past 15 months has ushered, mentally and emotionally, and individuals find themselves overwhelmed and burnt out. Consequently, these feelings seep into professional life. Workplace wellness is important because turmoil at the office leads to misunderstandings among colleagues, poor work performance, issues at home, and adverse health effects overall. Furthermore, the consequences of untreated mental illness leave suffering individuals at greater risk of heart attack or stroke, diabetes, insomnia, depression, and suicide.
Workplace wellness, also known as corporate wellbeing, is an essential part of office culture. The Global Wellness Institute defines workplace wellness as, “Any workplace health promotion activity or organizational policy designed to support healthy behavior among employees and to improve health outcomes.” There is a surmounting well of evidence that showcases how wellness bolsters both productivity and company morale, and that the workplace holds the potential to be a vital source of health interventions tailored toward adults. Not only do workplace wellness programs help identify those who are at risk and connect them to treatment and support, but employers are capable of reducing health care costs for their businesses and their employees by implementing such measures.
There are many signs that suggest an employee is struggling with mental health, including physical and non-physical indicators. Sensations that one may feel throughout the body include chest pains, headaches, tight muscles, digestive upset, insomnia, and getting sick with cold or flu often. Mental and emotional signs of stress include frustration, guilt, irritability, anxiety, poor memory, and racing thoughts. Employers might also notice changes in an employee’s work habits, physical appearance, and demeanor, along with increased absenteeism, tardiness, outbursts, and mood swings. Naturally, individuals may notice these signs within themselves and know that something is wrong. However, a significant number of those who report suffering from moderate to severe depression go without seeking help or treatment.
It’s not uncommon for employees to hide their mental illness at work, due to the fear of losing their job, even when said mental illness negatively impacts their performance and reflects poorly on their image. Over the past several years, the importance of the “mental health day” has been popularized. Employers themselves acknowledge the importance of their team’s physical and mental health, as a business cannot run smoothly without robust employees. However, as a result of persisting stigmas, few people feel safe admitting that they suffer from mental struggles and emotional dysregulation and need time off. In fact, most people are conditioned to go into work even when they are physically ill, so taking a day off for mental illness is out of the question. Therefore, it’s crucial that workplaces accommodate mental health needs. Without overstepping, there are steps employers may take to ensure that their professional sphere is healthy and at optimum function. Additionally, employees may advocate for themselves and the health of their colleagues.
Due to the variable nature of the COVID-19 virus and guidelines to mitigate it, employers might find it necessary to adjust sick-leave policies to accommodate the time it takes to quarantine and recover from the virus itself (requiring from weeks to months). In conjunction with a revised sick-leave policy, employees might also benefit from employee assistance programs (EAP) that offer professional counseling services and stress management.
Employers must make it known that their workplace supports speaking up about mental health and wellness and the struggles that they entail. While education surrounding mental illness has led to more understanding and weakened its taboo, stigma still silences those who need help. Finally, employers may utilize employee assistance professionals to learn more about mental health and how to build support, that includes confidentiality and is free of judgment, within the workplace.
How do employees cope when resources aren’t readily available to them, and there is no indication that they will be provided? The American Psychological Association (APA) offers some guidance to employees who face work-related tension. Advice from the APA includes journaling instances of stress and one’s responses to triggers, developing healthy coping mechanisms (such as physical activity as opposed to alcohol or comfort eating), making time for friends and family, and establishing work-life boundaries. Furthermore, people at work are encouraged to open a dialog with their supervisors if they are able. This conversation paves the way for resources and accommodations to be introduced to the entire workplace.
While it may seem like poor performance, changes in worker output are often due to mental health deficits. Employees who are more at risk of suffering depression and anxiety include those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders before the pandemic, people who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19, people who faced job insecurity at the start of the pandemic, and those who are survivors of the coronavirus themselves. Studies show that people who have had COVID-19 face an increased risk of mental disorders and other changes in the brain. Social isolation and long-lasting uncertainty further contribute to many individuals’ dwindling mental health.
Speaking with Self, Stephen W. Smith, mental health expert, states, “We need to accept that mental illness, like any other chronic illness, will become debilitating if it is left unaddressed. To pretend that it will not impact the workplace is an exercise in futility. To ignore the symptoms will only lead to more self-destructive behaviors and ultimately to a greater downturn in workplace productivity.”
Work is just as much a part of life as any activity outside of it, so it’s important that those within the workforce maintain their physical and mental health. While the past year and a half presented the population with an onslaught of unique challenges, prioritizing psychological well-being attenuates individual suffering and circumvents negative health consequences in the long term.
Here are a few article resources that provide helpful tips for navigating the post-COVID workforce for employees and employers:
- Cleveland Clinic
- Wexner Medical Center (Ohio State University)
- Center for Workplace Mental Health