Covid19’s Impact on the Mental Wellness of the American Worker

  By Dr. Frank Burtnett  |    Tuesday June 29, 2021

Category: Columns, Education, Expert Advice



As the American workplace enters the second half of 2021, it has started to examine the coronavirus pandemic in the rear view mirror.  This “return to normalcy” was reported by an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that indicated a majority of Americans were returning to routines they practiced pre COVID19.

As those steps toward normalcy are taken, it is time for both employees and employers to perform a mental wellness check to determine what individual and group needs will require attention in a post COVID19 world. The annual Mind the Workplace report from Mental Health America (MHA) is an excellent place to begin that assessment as that organization has monitored the pandemic since day one in early 2020.

Using data from the World Health Survey, which measured the perceptions of more than 5,000 employees across 17 employment sectors, the 2021 report came to the following broad conclusions or “takeaways:”

  • A majority of workers were experiencing symptoms of fatigue and burnout
  • Stress management support is seriously lacking
  • Workplace stress is affecting the workers’ mental wellness
  • Financial and economic security has risen to higher level of concern among workers

While COVID19 remains the “elephant in the room” in many work environments and decisions are being made about which COVID19 driven protocols and practices will remain a part of the “new normal” of the workplace. The Career Mechanic will dissect each of above “takeaways” and their implications for the workplace of tomorrow.

 

Fatigue and Burnout

Before worker adjustment was fully achieved for all of the changes required of employers, signs of fatigue began to appear for the worker who often found the added attention to detail and demand to learn new protocols to be an unanticipated time consumer. Confident, productive employees were suddenly faced with time management tests and having to function in an environment often fraught with the interruptions of distractions that didn’t exist in their usual place of work. 

Making matters worse was that these signals were not being observed by managers and supervisor who were themselves experiencing impactful modifications of their own. This fatigue sometimes affected personal wellness habits such as exercise, diet and sleep that upset performance and productivity for some and resulting for some in full-blown burnout for others.

Finally, some burnout grew out of the view that saw working remotely as working 24/7 instead of a defined shift or devoted (i.e. nine to five) time period. Modern technology intensified this quandary by enhancing and encouraging communications any time and from any location. The distance between work and life away from work had been dramatically reduced.

 

Stress and Anxiety Leading to Wellness Concerns

Not only did COVID19 call for adjustments in where work would be performed, it also amended how it would be conducted. Comfortable work habits were abandoned and new protocols and conventions were established that required learning and relearning of a magnitude never before witnessed in the American workplace. 

All of these---all of which amendments in the way work had to be accomplished simultaneously to the ongoing operation of the business, firm, organization, agency or institution. Like repairing an aircraft in flight, workplaces across America underwent structural and operational changes that dictated greater efficiency and accountability. Often the result was belt- tightening or contraction that led from to reductions in staff all the way out to mergers and mission repurposing

Remote work also meant the disappearance of the camaraderie and sharing of colleagues and managers/supervisors, and social and emotional supports they contributed to the wellbeing of the individual employee. Many employees never realized the degree they depended on this comradeship until it was gone and they were working alone.

While continuing education was already seen as a contemporary imperative for career growth and mobility, meeting that challenge within the COVID 19 context added a measure of anxiety and stress to the equation. Performing existing tasks in a remote, solitary environment, in and of itself, forced unwelcomed relearning and practice. While social distancing demands were being satisfied by a dispersed workforce, the ongoing personal, emotional and social needs of the individual employee were placed in unsolicited jeopardy.

Fortunately, most took these work, worker and workplace adjustments in stride or with little or limited difficulty and did what they had to keep their career development moving forward positively. Others, however, found these encounters daunting and began to display symptoms of stress, anxiety and then some of the more serious mental wellness challenges. The absence of the support of managers/supervisors and colleagues, a vital component that networking and teamwork, delivered to the “old normal,” also proved problematic.

 

Feelings of Financial and Economic Insecurity

Anyone experiencing job termination, furloughing, interruption or forced change of their employment is likely find their personal financial and economic security at risk or in danger to reaching that state at some future point. This was certainly the case for those left unemployed or in a state of uncertainty by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, the pandemic and the economic downturn it created resulted in unemployment numbers rising by more than 14 million, from 6.2 million in February to 20.5 million in May 2020. As a result, the U.S. unemployment rate shot up from 3.8% in February – among the lowest on record in the post-World War II era – to 13.0% in May.

The furloughed and terminated took the hardest hit. Many of those remaining, however, found themselves constantly looking in the email or mailbox for similar notifications. Throughout of the early pandemic, a sense of uncertainty emerged that left many employees in a state of fear and suspicion

The threat or reality of personal financial upheaval of this magnitude has also been found to bring out a range of emotions that includes anger, fear, apprehension, inconvenience, discomfort, and in some instances, paranoia. For individuals in the mid to latter stages of their careers, those emotions are typically more intense and intimidating. While emotions of this type can serve as the motivation for the individual taking control and correcting their uncomfortable circumstances or protecting themselves from its occurrence, it can concomitantly play havoc with their mental wellness.

 

Conclusion

Recent circumstances and events have forever changed the American workplace. Those seeking to enter, grow and move about this new world of work are going to be expected to display an ability to adapt to change like that never required this in the past and it’s unfortunate that it took a global tragedy to get to this end. In most occupational and work settings, this adaptability and flexibility has grown in importance as critical standard for hiring. 

Current and future members of the workforce are going to ask that wellness concerns become a more integral component in their quest for life-work balance and expect employers to design and deliver services (i.e., EAPs) that result in that achievement. Employers who meet those demands are likely to reap the rewards in a heightened engagement and eventual retention of their strongest employees. 

 

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© Education Now 

The Career Mechanic is a treatment of a career development issue or problem by Frank Burtnett, Ed.D, an educator, counselor, author, and consultant.  Dr. Burtnett has served as the Certification and Education Consultant to the National Association of Personnel Services (NAPS) since 1995.  Topics are drawn from his popular book, Career Errors: Straight Talk About the Steps and Missteps of Career Development, Second Edition (2019). Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield 

To learn more about Career Errors visit: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475848410.  EMInfo readers can receive a 20% discount by inserting RLEGEN2020 when prompted for a discount code. Direct future topics suggestions for The Career Mechanic and other inquiries to Dr. Burtnett at ednow@aol.com.


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