Is COVID-19 Hiding a Looming Mental Health Crisis?

The recent trend in declining rates of COVID-19 infections is giving hope to many that a return to some form of normalcy may be in the near future.  And with confidence buoyed by this new data, governments worldwide are beginning to relax restrictions and allow businesses to slowly re-open.  Organizations, in turn, are focusing their efforts in the near term on bringing their furloughed employees back to work in a safe and efficient manner.

But health experts are cautioning that another health crisis is looming. The Washington Post reports that public health experts and many government agencies are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a proverbial “powder keg” for an eventual explosion of mental health issues, including depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress.

And the warning signs have been visible for some time. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported recently that call volumes to the Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline, jumped by nearly 900% in March, and over 1,000% in April, when compared to the same period in 2019.  Similarly, in a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Foundation, almost 50% of respondents reported that the current pandemic was harming their mental health.

4 Factors Influencing the COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis

We don’t need to look too far to understand the factors influencing this emerging mental health crisis. Some of the most prominent include:

1. Social Isolation

While feelings of anxiety are common when dealing with periods of uncertainty, our ability to manage these feelings improves based on access to social networks. But social distancing measures designed to limit human interaction are effectively eliminating one of our most reliable means of emotional support. BBC News reports that many individuals are struggling to access public support services during lockdown, making matters worse.

2. Financial Uncertainty

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently that the unemployment rate reached 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the 1930s, with over 20 million jobs lost in the month. The economic instability caused by job loss can have a significantly negative impact on emotional well-being.  Research conducted during the 2008 Great Recession found a strong correlation between unemployment and rising rates of depression and death, particularly among men.

3. Generalized Fear and Anxiety

A recent poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that nearly half of US adults are concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19, and over 60% fear a loved one becoming infected. That fear is resulting in at least 6 out of 10 adults reporting that anxiety is having a serious impact on the daily lives, including trouble sleeping and increased use of drugs and alcohol.

4. Workplace Stress

Experts at King’s College London are warning that health care staff are at elevated risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially if they lack reliable access to mental health support and counselling, particularly as infections come under greater controland these workers begin to process their feelings more deeply.  A recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that the psychological effects on front-line health care workers related to the duration of the crisis, lack of proven therapies, shortages in resources and distress caused by filling in for family members that cannot be present during a patient’s final moments can result in considerable anxiety, stress and fear.

As the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports that the virus will likely remain a presence in our communities for the foreseeable future, employers must begin mobilizing resources to be able to respond to this looming mental health crisis, which if not properly addressed, could jeopardize the health of their workforce and economic recovery efforts. 

COVID-19 Mental Health Impacts: How Should Employers Respond?

Employers can help blunt the long-term effects that these mental health issues could have on their workforce’s health and productivity by strengthening workers’ access to mental health supports along with focusing on measures to better detect and mitigate related workplace risks before they translate into measurable impacts.  We’ll offer two suggestions for consideration:

1. Provide Access to Mental Health Care

Providing workers who may be struggling with emotional issues with prompt access to care is essential. But ensuring that employees get the care they need requires that supervisors and colleagues are educated to detect the signs and symptoms of emotional distress early. As a result, organizations should consider how they can provide additional training and education to their workforce to improve their ability to identify early on when co-workers may be struggling.  Education will also help to remove any stigma associated with reporting mental health issues and create an environment where workers will not be discouraged to seek help when needed.

Businesses should also consider how to extend access to resources that could allow workers to assess their own mental fitness, especially those anxious to discuss their challenges with peers or supervisors.  Many software solutions offer the capability to design and provide employees with access to digital questionnaires via any smart device.  Mental health questionnaires that could enable workers to identify their challenges can be integrated to an occupational health workflow, so that once a questionnaire is submitted, a health care professional could assess the employee’s health needs and arrange prompt access to appropriate medical care confidentially, without the worker having to speak to their supervisor. Additionally, leading EHSQ software solutions include functionality to allow their employees to book appointments with on-site health clinics directly from their mobile device, again ensuring that workers can seek out the help they need confidentially, without worrying about needing to have uncomfortable conversations with their superiors. It’s clear that the degree of flexibility and anonymity afforded through a digital solution may help to remove barriers to care, and lead to better health outcomes.

Employees should also be reminded of the availability of company-sponsored employee assistance programs that could provide them with supports needed to manage any current emotional crises.

2. Conduct Fitness to Work Evaluations

While employers need to be conscious of the risks posed by COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, we cannot overlook our responsibility to protect the workforce from the common hazards associated with our regular work. This is of particular importance when we consider that mental health issues may compromise an individual’s fitness to work, situational awareness and focus.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that over 20 million U.S. adults have a substance use disorder. Of that group, nearly 40% have a secondary mental illness.  And new research from the Well Being Trust, a national foundation advocating for increased mental health investment, estimates that unemployment, isolation and increased anxiety resulting from COVID-19 could contribute to another 75,000 deaths due to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

It is vitally important that employers place renewed focus on ensuring their employees are fit to work before each shift. In some circumstances, periodic and/or randomized alcohol and drug screening may be necessary, in accordance with applicable legal requirements, to confirm a worker’s level of fitness and ensure their fitness will not place themselves or others at elevated risks, especially when working in high-risk or “safety sensitive” positions. But considering all the additional burdens currently placed upon EHSQ departments to effectively manage risks in a post COVID-19 world, tools that enable organizations to conduct robust yet reliable fitness-to-work evaluations are definitely beneficial.

In that respect, organizations may find adoption of an EHSQ software solution to conduct randomized drug & alcohol testing not only improves efficiency, but will ensure data reliability and protect confidentially, both critical to meet associated legal burdens while maintaining employee trust in the transparency of the process. Digital solutions that allow employers to easily create pools of employees to test, assign post-test dispositions, select test randomization frequencies, define test batteries, track samples, auto-generate reports and integrate testing outcomes with other workflows will invariably make the testing processes easier, and give the organization greater confidence that their employees are physically and cognitively fit to perform their work safely.

Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Long Road to Recovery

After such an extended period of isolation, it’s clear that we all want to get back to the way things were before the pandemic struck.  But while we are seeing encouraging signs in the battle against COVID-19, we need to acknowledge that the road toward recovery will be long, and that will in turn create challenges for our emotional well-being and mental health.  And while a panacea doesn’t exist, there are measurable steps that organizations can take to support their workforce toward better health and wellness, which will in turn lead to more stable economic growth over time.  And the right software solutions, when implemented correctly, can be instrumental in achieving those goals.

Learn More: Register for a COVID-19 Mental Health and Wellness Webinar

To learn more about how you can safeguard your mental health during times of crisis like COVID-19 and support a resilient workforce register for our upcoming webinar:

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