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The Not-So-Silent Fallout from COVID-19—Stress

June 15, 2020
Acknowledging the emotional part of dealing with this pandemic is a huge stepping stone to delving further into the area of mental health.

Examining the state of our own personal mental health is not an exercise that many of us are familiar with. That is, until March 12 when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

As we check our temperatures and place masks over our faces, we are listening a little more closely to that inner voice that is telling us to keep our stress levels under control.

Stress is flying in from a variety of sources. A central one is how the companies we work for are reacting to this pandemic and how they are keeping us safe.

For example, visit the website of PPG Industries Inc. Open the landing page of the supplier of paints, coatings, and specialty materials, and up pops up a letter from CEO Michael H. McGarry.

“I hope this message finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy.”

The message continues to assure the reader that employees are being provided “ongoing instructions and communications” that include “encouraging heightened awareness of general hygiene precautions, social distancing and adjusting operations according to regulations.”

The first line of McGarry’s message is not a standard corporate line. Acknowledging the emotional part of dealing with this pandemic is a huge stepping stone to delving further into the area of mental health.

To understand the state of mental health, many are seeking resources. One especially helpful resource is a free, online, real-time screening offered by Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization.

“We are seeing a significant increase, around 20%, in the number of people who are taking our real-time assessment since mid-February,” explains Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America. 

Since the organization was founded six years ago, 5 million people have taken the screening. Typically, 2,000 to 3,000 people a week complete a screening where they receive immediate results, education and other resources. The stress from dealing with COVID-19 is driving that 20% increase.

The stress can be attributed to several factors, according to a study done recently by the American Psychiatric Association. More than one-third of Americans (36%) say coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health and most (59%) feel coronavirus is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.

Following the lead of PPG and other companies that are acknowledging coronavirus-related employee stress, the next step is to bring the topic directly into companies. “In dealing with COVID-19, it’s important to formalize the fact that we are all experiencing some level of anxiety, loneliness and isolation,” explains Darcy Gruttadaro, director, Center for Workplace Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

“Normalizing these feelings helps people feel comfortable in sharing their feelings,” says Gruttadaro. “And if the top leadership is open as well, it helps create a culture that can address mental health issues.”

Creating this culture can be more difficult that one might think.  A 2019 APA study found that around 50% of workers say they are somewhat comfortable discussing mental health openly with coworkers and supervisors.  Age plays a factor in this as well: Millennials are almost twice as likely as baby boomers to be comfortable (62% vs. 32%) talking about these issues. 

A good first step to helping employees deal with this issue is to expand the current employee assistance programs that most companies already have. “Employers have come a long way in the benefits they are now offering,” says Gionfriddo. “The EAPs are now being strengthened to provide better service. In addition to these formal benefits, we are seeing companies offering informal assistance in the form of peer support. This way employees can connect with others who are dealing with the same issues.”

The need to deal with these mental health issues now is of utmost importance. The problem with ignoring these issues, says Gruttadaro, is that they can lead to chronic levels of mental illness such as anxiety, depression and other serious mental health problems.

However, dealing with issues before they escalate is the mission of Mental Health of America. And, to help employers, it offers an award called the Bell Seal for Workplace Mental Health. This accreditation can prove to employees that a company values a mentally healthy workplace.

As the challenges surrounding COVID-19 continue, it will be the collaboration between employers and employees that will elevate our new-found humanity.

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