As Vaccination Rates Rise and Cases Drop, COVID Casts a Long Shadow

While the nation continues to turn the corner on COVID-19, more Americans are experiencing the pandemic's impact on mental health. For the third month in a row, PTSD risk rates increased, totaling a 36% jump since February and up from 46% in April, according to our May 2020 Mental Health Index report. Americans are now 55% more likely to screen positive for PTSD than before the pandemic.

Workplaces Need Resilience-Based Mental Health Benefits Post-COVID

The data comes with a simultaneous shift in public conversation about how employers can identify — and accommodate — the emotional and mental needs of their workforce. With more companies calling employees back to the office, concerns are widening beyond the "virtual vs. in-person" arena and into understanding where employers can provide resources for their employees. In a recent article published by The Atlantic, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, the founder and director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute, states, "As hard as the initial trauma is, it's the aftermath that destroys people." It's no surprise, then, that the majority of American have anxiety about returning to the office.
Caring about employees' safety and happiness is an ethical responsibility, but it's also an economic one. Those who suffer from PTSD endure a host of its effects, and the ability to focus is among the most prevalent. May's Mental Health Index data reflects this — workers' ability to focus dropped 24% from the month prior, translating into lost productivity in the office. Employees over 60, which can include executive-level employees, were the hardest hit, with a 125% decrease in focus compared to April. Millennials and late Generations Zers in the 20-39 range also saw a higher rate of focus issues at a 37% increase, 13 percentage points above average.

The country has the most unfilled job positions in 20 years, and while there are multiple factors likely influencing that trend, experts have spent the last year sounding the alarm on how the pandemic's residual effects will require employers to make changes if they want to re-engage workers. In an analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, academics from two Italian universities suggest employers implement "resilience training programs" to mitigate the undeniable outcomes of this "psychological pandemic."

Resilience is what helps us adapt to adversity, which is why it's such an important skill to hone this year. We can improve our resilience by training our brains to overcome the thought and behavioral patterns that reduce our ability to withstand and overcome traumatic events. By repeatedly practicing new patterns that eliminate detractors like conscious negativity bias — and boosting the power of positive thinking, for example — we are more likely to recover from trauma (and recover faster). In addition to offering Total Brain's program, employers might consider offering "mental health days" and other sources of relief for employees who need support.

Data Offers Reminders of Links Between Cognition and Emotion

PTSD affects the brain's cognitive and emotional functions, making focus just one of the challenges employees will likely continue to see this year. The ability to plan, which falls under the brain's cognition purview as well, saw additional decline: planning was 8% worse in May than pre-pandemic. In line with the higher PTSD risk rates for the oldest adults and youngest adults, those over 60 and those within the 20-19 age range saw deeper declines in their ability to plan, at 22% and 20% worse than pre-pandemic levels, respectively. 

U.S. workers are also grappling with COVID's impact on the brain's emotional functioning as reflected by the growing number of those reporting depressed mood and social anxiety. Our emotions — as well as our ability to manage them — can greatly influence a range of other brain capacities. Overall, we saw a 12% increase in depressive feelings since March 2021, and risks for social anxiety disorder rose 15%. 

Social anxiety is associated with three of the brain's capacities: social connectivity, emotion awareness, and anxiety control, all of which can be improved. Because Total Brain helps users strengthen the multiple brain functions tied to issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, people who engage with our library of brain training games, breathing exercises, and calming meditations have reported improvements in as little as month. 

For those who think they may be struggling with social anxiety disorder (SAD) as a result of the pandemic, read our blog on the difference between SAD and a reasonable response to the pandemic's prolonged social isolation.

Women's Stress Levels Remain Consistent

In addition to being the hardest hit economically during COVID, working women's stress levels remain 18% higher than men's since the upward trend began earlier in 2021. This follows a 13% climb between March and April, when women reported higher rates of depressed mood, anxiety, and stress levels than their male peers. Working women's depressive mood also remained consistent, holding steady at 14% higher than it was pre-pandemic.

While it's promising that rates are remaining stable vs. continuing to climb, prolonged stress and depressive feelings can have serious long-term effects — including cognitive decline over time. ("Depressive mood" is characterized by feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness, or grief.) It's not atypical to experience bouts of depressive mood that last days or weeks, particularly in high-stress situations like the pandemic, but when depressive feelings linger for months it can be classified as clinical depression.

Developing strong coping abilities can help stave off clinical depression (though genetic factors can predispose some to the illness), making resilience-building and emotion management tools like Total Brain a valuable option for women in the workforce this year.

May's Silver Lining: Addiction Is Down

Before you dive into this month's report, we want to call out a bit of good news: those screening positive for addiction fell by 7%, a promising trend that could yield more measurable benefits in the coming months. While everyone's struggle with addiction is unique, the decline in COVID cases has prompted more people to seek out healthy habits; Equinox is experiencing a notable surge in new memberships following the CDC's revised mask guidance, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous expect to see an uptick (which means people want to curb addictive behaviors).

2021 is likely to be as unpredictable as 2020 when it comes to how the American workforce will cope with the detritus left by COVID — which is why monitoring fluctuations in this uncharted territory will be a key part of how companies inform their employee benefits and company resources. 

Stay on top of your employees' well being by attending our monthly webinars, where industry thought leaders discuss the latest Mental Health Index data. Register today.

Interested in bringing Total Brain's program to your employees? Contact us for a demo

mental health in the covid-19 era