Workplace-related stress and anxiety are not new phenomena. Jobs can be a significant stress source that, left unchecked, can cause anxiety disorders and other adverse effects on physical health, mental well-being, workplace productivity and career opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated already widespread and largely unaddressed workplace mental health problems. While the worst of the pandemic is behind us, its effects linger. We’ll share approaches to address post-COVID workplace stress and anxiety to help businesses provide mental and emotional support for their teams.
Workplace stress and anxiety have long been problems for American workers. According to pre-pandemic data from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, up to 72 percent of American employees said stress and anxiety interfered with their day-to-day lives. Additionally, 40 percent reported persistent stress or excessive anxiety linked to their jobs, and 28 percent reported experiencing job-related anxiety or panic attacks.
The COVID-19 pandemic sent already problematic workplace stress levels soaring, and its aftermath is creating additional stress-inducing situations that can affect workplace productivity, communication and interpersonal relationships.
The following unique post-pandemic scenarios are common sources of workplace anxiety and stress.
A Pew Research survey in September 2022 found that 41 percent of American adults reported high levels of psychological distress. This was more common among women, people in lower-income households, younger people (between 18 and 29) and those with a disability. Additionally, 60 percent said their stress levels varied widely. So even if an employee doesn’t seem to be stressed, this could change.
Pandemic-related stress prompted unprecedented anti-anxiety and other mental health medication prescriptions. According to the CDC, 15.8 percent of American adults took prescription drugs for mental health in 2019; that percentage increased to 24 percent by May 2022.
According to the NIH, at the start of the pandemic, there was a 21 percent increase in the total number of prescriptions for antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. At the peak of this increase, 78 percent of prescriptions filled were new prescriptions, suggesting that people turned to medication to help with stress and anxiety.
Unfortunately, some mental health medications have significant side effects and safety concerns, including the risk of misuse, overuse, addiction and even death. Benzodiazepines, for example, are a sedative class often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. They work by depressing the central nervous system and enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits anxiety responses in the brain.
However, benzodiazepines have a long list of potential side effects, including the following:
More serious potential side effects of benzodiazepine usage include:
Additionally, these medications have a broad potential for abuse and physical dependency because patients rapidly develop a tolerance to them. Of the 30.5 million Americans age 12 and older who have used a benzodiazepine, 5.6 million reported misusing the drugs at least once, according to the American Addiction Centers.
Amid post-pandemic stress, prescription use will likely hold steady or increase, boosting the likelihood that more people will misuse the drugs or develop a dependency.
Exercise caution when discussing possible drug abuse with your employees. Your first step is creating a substance abuse policy that addresses how the business will handle issues related to drug and alcohol abuse as well as the abuse of prescribed medications.
Some employees will likely be hesitant to discuss their mental health, fearing adverse effects on their professional development and career opportunities. You’ll need a multi-pronged approach to address the physical and mental challenges of post-pandemic workplace stress and anxiety compassionately and effectively.
An employee assistance program (EAP) gives employees access to counseling services and other resources. Many EAPs address challenges in an employee’s life that contribute to stress and anxiety, such as child care services, financial assistance and legal counsel. Assistance can include phone- and video-based counseling, live web chat, and face-to-face sessions, typically at no or reduced cost to employees.
Consider implementing an EAP or enhancing existing packages. Ask for employee feedback about what resources would help them most, and craft an EAP that addresses genuine challenges employees face inside and outside the workplace.
Consider changing your scheduling and time-off policies to accommodate employees’ mental health needs. Some employees may benefit from working at least part time from home or the ability to take a “mental health day” with a day’s notice.
The COVID-19 pandemic led millions of Americans to reevaluate their work environment, resulting in “The Big Quit” and subsequent labor shortages.
According to Lyra’s 2023 State of Workplace Mental Health report, 25 percent of employees are actively considering changing jobs in the next year. Reasons included the following:
When you work to fix these factors, your employees’ mental health may improve, and you can reduce employee turnover.
To improve employee happiness at work during troubling world events, maintain near-total transparency with your employees about what’s happening. Encourage them to ask questions, and address their concerns.
While workplace mental health discussions are on the rise, many employees don’t feel comfortable requesting a mental-health-related accommodation or leave of absence.
To combat this perception, provide mental health training, and encourage managers to inquire about team members’ mental health, notice warning signs and discuss their own mental health to create a workplace culture of compassion and communication.
According to a survey by Clever Real Estate, in 2023, nearly half of employees said financial stress was the top factor affecting their mental health. Factors included inflation, widespread layoffs and fears of a recession. A financial wellness program can help employees better manage their finances and alleviate some of that stress.
Practices like yoga and meditation can reduce workplace stress and boost productivity. Consider offering a lunchtime or after-hours yoga class on-site or contracting with an outside studio to provide classes to employees at a discount. Include a meditation module in your employee training so employees can use this technique to reduce stress at work.
Shawn Singh contributed to this article.