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Covid Mental Health

Help Them If You Can—They’re Feeling Down

May 8, 2020
In this era of COVID-19, ensuring the mental health of workers is just as important as their physical health.

It’s early May at this writing, and like many of you, I’m working out of my house, socially distant from the rest of society while my state’s (Ohio) stay-at-home order is still in effect. The manner in which the various state-wide quarantines were enacted (or not enacted), and indeed the very need for such extreme measures will be debated for a long, long time in this country. If we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned that politicians can politicize literally everything, and that the popular press can sensationalize absolutely anything. Still, the cooperation shown by average citizens whose lives and livelihoods were put on hold for the greater good of their communities has been astonishing and inspiring.

We’re now on the threshold of recovery, as each of the 50 states starts their grand re-opening process to get their economies back up to speed. It’s not going to be easy, or pretty, or quick, but it will happen. Surely, it will require leadership and vigilance from safety leaders to continue to protect their workers from the lingering remnants of the virus. It’s now no longer just EHS professionals who have a working familiarity with PPE, and it could well be that we’ll continue to see six-foot-gaps both inside and outside of the workplace for some time to come. Beyond ensuring the physical health of their workers, though, safety leaders will need to pay even more attention than they already do to the mental health of their employees.

Since 1949, May has been Mental Health Awareness Month, and coincidentally or not, there’s never been a greater need than right now to address the incidence of serious anxiety, depression, insomnia and suicidal thoughts amongst the population. According to the non-profit organization Mental Health America, the prevalence of mental illness among adults has been slowly climbing over the past decade, and is currently at 18.57%. Suicidal ideation is also on the rise, as is now at 4.19% of the adult population.

In the weeks following stay-at-home orders and the shutdown of commerce, 88% of U.S. workers say they’ve experienced moderate to extreme stress, according to a survey of full-time workers conducted by Ginger, a provider of mental healthcare solutions. Here are some other alarming stats from that survey:

69% of workers say that right now is the most stressful time of their entire careers, even more so than during the September 11 terrorist attacks or the 2008 Great Recession.

● 43% of workers say they have become physically ill due to work-related stress.

● 62% of workers report losing at least one hour a day in productivity due to COVID-19-related stress, and 32% say they lose at least two hours per day.

“As employers wrestle with business continuity planning during COVID-19, this research confirms that employers need to make mental health support a critical aspect of that plan, or risk a dramatic impact on employee health and productivity,” points out Sally Welborn, executive advisor at the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable and formerly SVP of global benefits for retail giant Walmart Stores Inc.

In our cover story this month (“COVID on the Mind”), senior editor Adrienne Selko observes, “COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for employees and employers alike to address the issue of mental health. While some employers have programs in place, there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.”

Indeed, employers will need to take a long and hard look at their priorities, and ensure that the physical as well as mental health of their workers is at the top of the list. At too many companies, the importance of profit overshadowed the well-being of the workforce, and the situation we are in now as a country has revealed that we are more reliant on a healthy populace than we may have realized.

Even today, mental health resources are vastly underfunded and dismissed by too many politicians and employers. While some companies have taken initiatives such as allowing for “mental health days,” most companies still do not recognize the vital importance of their employees’ psychological wellness. Given the rising stress levels amongst the American workforce, we all need to advocate for greater mental health awareness, not just in the month of May, but all year long. If we don’t do it now, it just might be too late.

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