The Shadow Pandemic: Mental Health in a Global Crisis

A woman in quarantine looks out the window longingly.

Mental health concerns about COVID-19 are multifaceted: first, there’s a population-wide fear of contracting the illness; second, there are economic implications that disrupt day-to-day life and drain resources from both public and private funds. Rates of depression and anxiety have nearly tripled since April, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Monthly prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants increased by approximately 15% each, according to a UnitedHealth Group study. These studies paint in broad strokes the disturbing effect the pandemic and social isolation have had on the U.S. as a whole—but for certain segments of the population, the influence is even more pronounced.

About 46% of working parents, for example, rated their average stress level an 8 or higher on a 10-point scale in a survey with the American Psychological Association. COVID-19 also disproportionately affects people of color, according to the CDC, and essential workers buckle beneath the Sisyphean task of working onsite, even though it puts themselves and their household at risk. People with existing mental illnesses have had those conditions amplified through prolonged periods of isolation and stress.

A parent loses her patience during quarantine while her two children run around the kitchen.

Research on an earlier pandemic on a smaller scale—Sars-CoV—shows diagnosable mental health issues in about 60% of survivors, according to information reported by The Guardian. Although most people won’t develop a long-term mental illness after experiencing trauma, about 10% could face ongoing symptoms and regressions.

The most common symptoms of mental stress include:

  • Depression and low self-esteem
  • Chronic headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • Appetite changes
  • Digestive issues
  • Tachycardia and rapid heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Inability to focus
  • Loss of control
  • Social isolation
  • Rash decision-making
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization

Business leaders are uniquely positioned to help ease some of this distress by offering additional support to their employees during a crisis. The following guide explains how you can minimize the mental and emotional burden on workers during the pandemic and help ensure your company’s stability.

How to Support Your Employees’ Mental Health

1. Ask your employees how they are doing.

Ryan Smith, Co-Founder and CEO at Qualtrics, says about 40% of employees claim their company hasn’t checked in to see how they’re coping since the pandemic began. While it’s important to respect employees’ privacy, Smith recommends managers consistently talk with team members one-on-one to evaluate their emotional and mental state. Sometimes just listening to their concerns will be enough to relieve pressure on the situation, but these conversations can also reveal proactive ways to alleviate stress before it snowballs.

To make these interactions authentic and productive, schedule meetings regularly (once or twice a week), and emphasize comradery among colleagues. Make it clear no one experiences this hardship alone.

A man attends a telehealth therapy session2. Offer a comprehensive employee assistance program (EAP).

Most employer-sponsored health benefit packages set a cap on the number of therapy sessions an employee can receive throughout the year, and these sessions might not be enough to help during a crisis. In addition to offering generous insurance coverage, consider providing free and confidential psychological assessments and counseling to help employees manage stress with fewer interruptions to the workplace. You might also want to adjust your company’s policy on flexible spending accounts, telehealth services, and exercise programs, which are tied with performance improvements and enhanced emotional resilience.

3. Reduce obstacles to care.

Anticipate accommodation requests and instate clear, unbiased policies for supporting employees. Enforce the same regulations across departments and positions to avoid perceptions of favoritism or discrimination.

Here are a few examples of requests you should prepare for:

  • Extended permission to work from home. 
  • Scheduling flexibility and “core hour” shifts.
  • More frequent sanitation services at the workplace. 
  • Private workstations with barriers separating workers. 
  • The ability to schedule and attend doctor and therapy appointments during working hours. 
  • Deadline extensions. 
  • Memory aids and organization tools. 

4. Notify employees about their options for mental health support.

Many people don’t know all the benefits included in their employment contract. Create an internal communications campaign to inform workers about the resources at their disposal. You might also consider sharing strategies for healthy coping mechanisms, mindfulness techniques, and avoiding burnout. Organize a task force and release a weekly or bi-weekly newsletter to encourage employees to participate in programs that boost mental health.

5. Dispel stigma about mental health.

Every year, about 1 in 5 people in the U.S. has a diagnosable mental illness—yet fewer than half receive treatment. Mental illnesses are highly stigmatized in our society, but, if you can create an open and accepting environment at work, people will be more likely to seek out the help they need. Talk frankly about the importance of mental health and circulate information about resources like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) and Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990).

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6. Create a comprehensive PTO policy that includes “mental health days.”

It can be just as challenging to work through brain fog as it is to work with a cold or flu. Try to normalize mental health days and don’t press employees for details if they request the day off without warning.

7. Understand people’s ability to regulate their emotions has changed.

Anger is an often-overlooked secondary condition to anxiety. While we are all caught in a constant cycle of hypervigilance and anxiety, don’t be surprised if you see people lashing out or behaving rashly. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Jeremy Yip, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, says, “Anger narrows our perspective. This is dangerous because it diminishes our ability to think strategically and broadly.”

Business leaders can help employees avoid confrontations and miscommunication during high-stress situations by facilitating virtual team-building and scheduling downtime to help staff decompress. It might also be prudent to talk to your workforce about giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt if, for example, an email could be interpreted as overly curt or dismissive. Work with team leads to teach them how to de-escalate tension and identify signs that someone is struggling. Train HR departments to address mental health concerns and refer employees to an HR rep if disputes arise.

Confident CEO helps support employees through a crisis 8.Provide transparency.

Uncertainty feeds anxiety. You might not be able to avoid layoffs or pay cuts, but you can do your best to give people as much notice as possible so they have time to organize their accounts. Communications should come from the C-suite, and leadership at every subsequent level should reinforce this message of honesty and transparency.

Taking a Longview Approach to Mental Health

On June 30th, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned the U.S. could soon have 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day—three times higher than the peak last spring. Businesses need to prepare for the possibility of sustained economic pressure and emotional tension. By making mental health a priority, we can create a silver lining from an international tragedy.

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About the Author

Rachel Lake is a writer and editor in New York City. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. To get in touch with Rachel, contact her on LinkedIn.