Poor mental health among the workforce is emerging as a significant issue globally, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. While the developing countries have recently started addressing this problem, a lot of studies and research has already been conducted in the US and the UK.
It is a known fact that on average 1 in 5 adults (aged 18 or older)suffer from a mental illness in the US. Since the occurrence of the pandemic, this number has increased further. According to a study conducted by The Standard,the percentage of US workers facing mental health challenges has risen from 39% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. In short, almost half of the US workforce is dealing with mental health issues.
What is a mental illness?
Mental illness is a collective term for all kinds of illnesses that can affect an individual’s thoughts, behavior, feelings, perceptions, and emotions. At present, a majority of the US workforce suffer from the following mental health conditions:
- Anxiety: Anxiety occurs when people feel that a particular event in the future would not end well. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness which nearly every adult experiences once in their lifetimes. It also includes social phobias, post-traumatic disorder, etc. As per the observations made by Anxiety and Depression Association of America,even though anxiety disorders are highly treatable, most patients do not receive the treatment. Some symptoms of anxiety disorders are excess worrying, restlessness, poor sleep, panic attacks, fatigue, and agitation.
- Depression: High amount of stress often leads to depression. It becomes a major disorder when it significantly affects the way a particular individual thinks, feels, and acts. Major depressive disorder can cause numerous problems physically, emotionally, and mentally. Common symptoms include lack of interest in one’s hobbies, irregular sleeping patterns, changes in appetite, and loss of energy. Many patients also experience low self-esteem, changes in weight, and thoughts leading to self-harm. It often triggers people to turn to substance use. Major depressive disorder is also the leading cause of disability among Americans falling in the age group of 15-44.
- Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar Disorder causes mood or manic episodes. It refers to extreme and intense changes in emotional states that are different from normal behavior. People suffering from bipolar disorders may also find their usual activity and sleep patterns change drastically.
- Addiction and Substance Abuse: Addiction is a mental condition that results in the compulsive use of substances in spite of their harmful consequences. Such substances include alcohol, drugs, tobacco, etc. Addiction and substance abuse affect relationships, work, and daily activities to a great extent. It is a major issue in the US. According to a study, in 2017, around 20% of Americans (aged 12 and above) suffered from substance use disorder. The pandemic has only worsened the situation.
Other mental health conditions that the American workforce may be exposed to are:
- Schizophrenia: Only 1 percent of the American population suffers from schizophrenia. It is a chronic brain disorder that can include symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, lack of motivation, etc.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A personal experience of a particular event such as a natural disaster or a violent assault may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder among individuals. Such persons may get affected by disturbing thoughts, sadness, fear, anger, etc. They still suffer from the feelings associated with the event long after it has ended.
Migrant workers and healthcare professionals are at a higher risk of developing mental issues in the current scenario. The prevalence of mental illnesses is also the highest among the youngsters (aged 18-25).
What are the causes of the high percentage of mental illnesses in the US?
The work environment acts as a crucial trigger for conditions associated with mental ill-health. According to a recent studyconducted by Mental Health America, there are many stressors that have an impact on the mental health of the workers. Some of them are:
- Financial Insecurity: Financial Insecurity: The pandemic resulted in significant changes in the economy. Many companies either closed down or had to introduce new norms. Various organizations also started exploring cost-cutting measures, which involved either laying off employees or reducing their salaries. All these factors caused financial insecurity among the workers. A large number of US workers expressed concerns about paying their living expenses and family costs.
- Burnout: Factors that mostly cause employee burnout are long working hours, heavy workload, and lack of management support. The working conditions of people have changed drastically over the last few years. Practices like offshoring and freelancing involve different groups of people working together. They generally have no idea of who they are working for or who their colleagues are. The global nature of work and the massive rise of e-commerce also affects the working hours of the people. In many cases, individuals, especially freelancers, find themselves working for longer hours than required. All these factors affect the mental health of individuals causing lack of proper sleep, poor eating habits, increased alcohol or drug consumption, and so on. This also results in increased absenteeism and chronic work stress.
- Workplace Stress: As per the report of Mental Health America, almost 85% of the respondents claimed that workplace stress had a toll on their mental health. Fear of unemployment, underpay, frequent changes in the work routine, work-family conflict, physical distancing, improper or ineffective support from the management are some of the causes for the same. Previous research points out that a fear of job loss or actual job loss accelerates the possibility of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. This, in turn, leads to more numbers of substance use disorders and suicide cases.
- Social Isolation: To tackle Covid-19, governments had to enforce laws requiring social isolation and physical distancing. This led to an increased number of workers working from home with the help of digital devices. The inability to physically get in touch with colleagues and the lack of human touch affected people’s behavior. It also resulted in poor communication and a more stressful work environment. Even after the government relaxed the norms, many individuals started suffering from social anxiety. It again affected their daily working and productivity, leading to higher stress.
- Harassment and Discrimination at work: Even though workplace discrimination and harassment are illegal, it surely persists. People belonging to different ethnicities, religions, nations, women, and members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to get fired, rejected, or underpaid in an organization. As of 2019, theU.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported that the largest number of charges filed against discrimination were related to disability (33.4%), race (33%), sex (32.4%), and age (21.4%).
- Excess Screen Time: The world has become digital. Today, a majority of operations can be done digitally over the internet. Technology has helped in encouraging remote work and taking benefit of the global workforce. While it has made life easier for workers and individuals alike, it also has a negative side. Apart from affecting the eyes, excess screen time results in poor focus, poor cognitive ability, and irregular sleep patterns, among others. These can affect a person’s work efficiency, leading to poor performance, lower productivity, and high stress.
What are the effects of mental health conditions on workers?
When a large section of the workforce is affected by a high degree of mental illnesses, it has a negative effect on the economy as well as society. For instance, substance abuse increases, and worker productivity decreases. A recent study led by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that loss of productivity due to depression and anxiety disorders costs the global economy USD 1 trillion each year. A report from McKinseyfurther states that the company giant Starbucks spent more on health insurance than coffee last year.
Apart from rising costs and falling productivity, relationships also get strained, and the overall health of a person deteriorates to a great extent. The incidence of patients having costlier physical diseases increases. This is due to the close connection between physical and mental health. For instance, people with good psychological well-being are likely to engage in healthy activities and self-care. On the other hand, people with mental illnesses are more prone to chronic diseases like diabetes, and heart problems.
How are companies addressing the issue?
Since a high percentage of the US workforce deals with mental health issues, it has become necessary for employers to install policies and systems that address the same. Over the years, more and more employers have started providing adequate support and assistance to employees. Some of the steps that companies take are:
- Regular mental health self-assessments of employees.
- Providing health insurance to employees.
- Offering counseling, self-management, and coaching programs.
- Hosting workshops and seminars on mental health issues.
- Building relaxation spaces at the workplace.
- Normalizing discussions on mental health issues.
Despite the efforts, very few people are able to benefit from the assistance. This is because most patients are still hesitant to approach therapists and counselors. They are not vocal about the conditions they are suffering from. Moreover, a large number of mental health providers remain underpaid. That is why there is a great shortage of mental health providers. A study presented that 60% of the US counties did not even have a single psychiatrist. Hence, the sector of mental health remains under invested.
What about self-employed people such as freelancers?
The number of people picking up freelancing in the US has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2019, 34% of the US workforce were freelancers. The numbers have undoubtedly increased. Generally, people go freelancing to make extra money or benefit from the advantages of a flexible schedule and working from anywhere. However,various studies show that freelancers are more likely to suffer from mental health issues in comparison to office workers. It is because of unstable work, high working hours, loneliness, and irregular income. Furthermore, these individuals are not supported by any company’s programs. Hence, they are more likely to have depression without adequate support to use.
How can members of the gig economy take care of their mental well-being?
For freelancers, maintaining a work-life balance should be their utmost priority for the good of their mental well-being. To do so, they can do the following:
- Join a co-working space: A majority of freelancers experience depression due to loneliness. Joining a co-worker space will help them make new friends and provide an experience similar to that of an office while allowing them to be their own boss.
- Set clear guidelines with clients: It is advisable for freelancers to clearly express their terms and conditions to the clients beforehand. This helps in avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts later.
- Have a work routine: One of the major advantages that freelancers have is an inflexible work schedule. However, this can also affect their mental health as they may pile up a lot of work and complete none. They also have strict work deadlines, which can further cause a lot of stress. That is why they must structure a routine and abide by it.
- Seek professional help: No individual should ever hesitate before seeking professional help. If the stress and anxiety are overpowering, all workers, including freelancers, should approach professionals who can help them.
Research and studies clearly indicate that a large percentage of the American workforce is suffering from some mental illness. The most common ones are anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse. Even members of the gig economy (e.g. freelancers) show a high number of mental health issues primarily because of loneliness. Poor mental health affects all aspects of a person’s life, whether it be the individual well-being, work-life, and relationships. The main causes of stress that affect the workers in the US are financial insecurity, workplace stress, social isolation, burnout, harassment, and discrimination at work. Although companies are increasingly addressing the issue by adopting mental health support and assistance systems, the problem is still widely prevalent. This is because of the stigma attached to mental health conditions and the low investment in the area.