Mental Health Impact: 1 Year Into Pandemic

The fresh start of the new year brought promising overall improvement in several mental health capacities. However, as February’s Mental Health Index reveals, it would be a mistake to assume the brief return to normalcy means the end of our mental health woes. 

While we saw some encouraging trends with several capacities returning to pre-pandemic levels, mental health suffered a great deal throughout 2020 and is still in recovery mode. Employers should stay sensitive to the fact that workers remain vulnerable, especially with much of life still in flux through 2021, and that mental health was already a struggle prior to the pandemic. It is crucial to continue providing employees with adequate support and recognize that future setbacks are inevitable if we do not examine the impacts on mental health beyond the pandemic.

Many mental capacities return to pre-pandemic levels

In January, as we were coming off the holiday season and riding the high hopes of a fresh start, we saw stress return to pre-COVID levels for the first time since the start of the pandemic. It was unclear whether this improvement would sustain; however, from January to February, stress among U.S. workers remained unchanged, confirming that workers are less stressed now than they were throughout 2020. With stress as a huge contributing factor to many other mental health capacities, the improvement has likely helped drive improvements in other areas as well.

Resilience, for instance, has recently improved as well. Resilience measures our ability to bounce back from stress, and it has moved in sync with stress levels throughout most of the pandemic. We also saw conscious negativity bias drop to 16 percent below last December’s level -- its lowest level since the pandemic began. As workers continued to operate in a better headspace, memory finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. Those in the 20-39 age group saw the biggest improvement with a 9 percent jump since December. 

These positive changes continue to be encouraging signs for the workplace. Employees in a healthier mental state not only perform better as individuals, but also collaborate more effectively with their peers. 

Risk of depressive disorder and PTSD declines

With more mental capacities making returns to pre-pandemic levels, depressed mood and risk of Depressive Disorder followed suit. Overall, risk for Depressive Disorder fell 30 percent, and for the first time since the start of COVID, did not exceed pre-pandemic risk levels. Workers in the 40-59 age group saw the largest improvement with a 50 percent decline.

The risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder also started to decrease over the last two months. After falling 28 percent since the end of December, workers’ PTSD risk level finally returned to its pre-COVID levels. 

Like stress, our emotions can greatly influence our other brain capacities, such as focus, attention, positivity and more. We need to be well to do well. To see a turnaround in depressed emotional state bodes well for productivity in the workplace.

Mental health challenges persist

Despite several improvements in mental health, a year of unrelenting stress and trauma has left many workers susceptible to mental health challenges. Risk for General Anxiety Disorder was 30 percent higher this February compared to last. Since January 2021, risk of Anxiety Disorder increased, especially for those 60 and older, whose risk levels rose a whopping 441 percent. Addiction risk continues to rise, especially among women. Even a gradual return to normalcy won’t automatically erase these mental health woes. 

Before the pandemic, mental health struggles were already a big issue. It’s crucial, therefore,  to continue monitoring mental health trends as this year progresses. With the impacts of the pandemic and continuing social justice issues, we cannot be complacent about addressing workers’ struggles. Especially if workers return to the office sometime this year, it is important to ensure they are at their best physically and mentally. We will keep tracking the trends and sharing our findings in the Mental Health Index

In the meantime, we encourage employers to  lead with compassion and empathy and  provide much needed mental health and wellness support for their workers. Tools like Total Brain can be extremely helpful in training and maintaining the brain capacities needed to remain present and resilient through these times. If you’re not already using Total Brain in your workplace, schedule a demo to see how Total Brain can help.

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