A Fresh Start: 2021 Begins with Some Mental Relief

The beginning of a new year typically symbolizes a fresh start and brings a renewed sense of optimism, something we all need after an unprecedented and mentally taxing 2020. Based on our latest Mental Health Index, it seems people have managed to find a little bit of hope, with January being the best month for the U.S. workforce’s mental health since the pandemic started last year. 

Though we can’t predict if the upward trend will continue, the improved statistics are promising. Overall emotional wellness in January rose higher than pre-pandemic levels. Anxiety levels decreased, and stress returned to pre-COVID levels for the first time since the pandemic began. With lower anxiety and stress, several other mental capacities like focus and memory saw improvements as well.  These gains may be an early sign that the workforce is bouncing back after a challenging 2020. If the trends continue, 2021 will see performance and productivity thrive again. 

Declines in Non-Conscious Negativity Improve Emotional State

While negativity remained high among U.S. workers through the end of 2020, the emotional state of the workforce made a turnaround in January, thanks to a decline in non-conscious negativity bias. Both men and women showed decreases in negativity bias — 9% and 7%, respectively — which helped contribute to an 8% decline in negativity overall from December to January.

Comparing January’s data to that of last February was even more encouraging, as it revealed workers ended January 6% less negative than they were at the start of the pandemic. On top of being eager to close the door on a mentally and emotionally exhausting 2020, people were likely relieved about the completed transition of presidential power and hopeful to see an end to the pandemic in sight with the rollout of COVID vaccinations.  

These factors won’t guarantee a sustained decline in negativity, but they’ve certainly helped the workforce start the year on a positive note. Continuing to keep negativity bias down will be key for fostering a healthy and productive work environment, as biases can deeply affect communication and collaboration.

Relief from Stress and Anxiety Boosts Performance

Beyond the pandemic, last year’s stressors included natural disasters, racial injustice, civil unrest and a volatile political climate. January, in contrast, brought a brief period of relief. Our data revealed that stress decreased 16% compared to December, returning to pre-COVID levels. In addition, anxiety and depressed mood both improved significantly, seeing a 19% and a 21% decline, respectively. 

Chronic stress and anxiety cause cognitive decline, so improvements in these areas drove improvements in worker cognition and focus. The workforce ended 2020 with extremely low focus, but bounced back in January with a 21% improvement. As the year unfolds and new stressors are introduced, emphasizing proper stress management will be key to sustaining worker performance. Special attention should be paid to those ages 40-59, who have struggled most with anxiety and saw a decrease in memory and focus through January. 

Increased Positivity Helps Resilience Bounce Back

Conscious negativity bias dictates whether we’re a cup-half-empty or cup-half-full type of person, and cups started to flow again in January. For the last half of 2020, conscious negativity rose 13% across working men, but that increase was almost nullified with an 11% decline in January. Women saw an even larger 13% decline in negativity.  

With workers in a more positive headspace, resilience made a 5% comeback in January after being down through much of the second half of 2020. Resilience is the brain capacity that enables us to adapt or bounce back in the face of adversity. It can be boosted through factors like a positive attitude and stress management. Workers in the 60+ age group saw the biggest improvement in resilience, with an 11% increase. The youngest workers, ages 20-39, followed with a bump of 6%. Resilience remained low, however, for those in the 40-59 age group, as they continued to struggle with elevated stress and anxiety.  

The decrease in conscious negativity bias shows that workers spent January focusing on opportunities more than problems, making them more optimistic. Combined with improved resilience, these positive and persevering mindsets enable employees to be more effective as contributors and feel more satisfied, not only with their own work but also with their interactions and collaboration with others. 

If you are a leader at your organization, adopting a compassionate managerial style can help build resilience within your team. Taking the path of empathy helps build employee confidence and positive self-belief and provides employees with the proper trust and support they need to navigate workplace challenges. 

The Road Ahead 

Though January seemed to give us a promising start to the new year, it’s still too soon to say whether the upward trend is sustainable in the near term. Our data shows that risks for mental health disorders including PTSD, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, depressive disorder and sleep apnea  are still volatile for both men and women. Meanwhile, external stressors persist: Vaccine rollouts have been slow and disorganized. Many schools and businesses remain shuttered and families separated. And, seasonal affective disorder may worsen with the extreme winter weather clobbering the country.  

It’s possible we experience a decline in mental health again next month. We’ll continue monitoring the trends so that we can share our findings in next month’s Mental Health Index

In the meantime, we encourage employers to prioritize self-care for their workers by providing tools like Total Brain to train and maintain the brain capacities needed for navigating these challenging times. If you’re not already using Total Brain in your workplace, schedule a demo to see how Total Brain can help.

If you’re an HR or benefits professional looking to help your team members stay proactive about managing their mental wellness through these uncertain times.

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