Depression, Anxiety Still a Thing, Even as Covid Restrictions Ease

One would think that, as the crushing effects of the once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic waned, levels of stress, depression and anxiety would also ease.
But experts say ― and statistics show ― it’s just not true.

Research shows burnout and depression are actually affecting more people who either work remotely or are back to work on a hybrid schedule than those who’ve returned full-time to the office as pandemic restrictions eased, though it’s not by a lot.

It all seems to contribute to a sense of exhaustion workers are feeling. Bloomberg reported that more than 40% of people with desk jobs feel burned out at work ― the highest rate of the pandemic era ― according to a recent survey by Future Forum, a research consortium backed by Salesforce Inc.’s Slack Technologies.

And an analysis by the Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Oakland, Calif., showed that fully remote (40 percent) and hybrid schedules (38 percent) are associated with increased proclivity for anxiety and depression, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, than in-person work (35 percent).

According to the SHRM report, IBI analyzed data from the Household Pulse Survey, an online resource created by the U.S. Census Bureau to determine how households were impacted by the pandemic. IBI partnered with Elevance Health (formerly Anthem) to analyze claims data related to mental health.

Elizabeth Williams

“We’re still trying to find our new way in this different landscape of work,” said Elizabeth Williams, principal of HR Solutions for Rehmann and the past president and board member of the Greater Ann Arbor SHRM chapter. “I see it up close and personal with people, that we’re falling into our old work habits and more companies are having some type of a more hybrid setup and there’s more of a structure and a schedule to it.”

Post-pandemic hangover
Williams calls it the “post-pandemic hangover,” a stressful time after over two years of non-commute time. Now we’re back in it, some people are even going back to the office two or three days a week.

“For an hour commute one way, you’re losing those two hours a day, which wears on you mentally,” Williams said. “I still think (burnout) is real. We’re trying to find our balance here. The world is not back to normal, but for all intents and purposes we’re jumping back into our old routines ― or ruts.”

It’s a matter of people reacting to once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. Kent Sharkey is president, CEO and the founder of Ulliance, Inc., a Troy, Mich.-based employee assistance program, a company he founded more than three decades ago.

A clinical therapist by training, Sharkey said he agrees depression and burnout are still major problems.

“What we’ve experienced over the last three years, no matter what geographical area employees are in, we’re seeing the same emotional impact from Covid,” said Sharkey, whose company covers about a million employees throughout the U.S., with international programs in locations such as Mexico, the United Kingdom and South America. “Early on, we kept hearing the word ‘unprecedented.’ You don’t hear it as much anymore, but the psychological impact ― not just emotional, but physical ― on people has been unprecedented.

Rising pressures
“There will be a ton of psychological research that’s going to be done as a result of the last three years,” he added.

Economic uncertainty, fear of job cuts and rising pressure to return to in-office work have added to workplace malaise, Future Forum researchers said, according to Bloomberg.

In the U.S., while the unemployment rate is still historically low ― 3.6% in the third week of March ― layoffs have been coming, particularly in the tech industry. Return-to-office policies are shifting from being recommended to required in many industries, such as the auto industry.

According to Bloomberg, the Future Forum survey found pandemic-era workers with more freedom to choose where and when they work are usually more satisfied, productive and less likely to quit.

In the latest poll, conducted late last year, more than half of those who said they were dissatisfied with their level of flexibility also said they were burned out. Employees with immovable work schedules are more than twice as likely to say they’ll “definitely” look for a new job over the next year.

“All the benefits of flexibility are about how you give people focused time, rather than sweating how many days a week they are in,” Brian Elliott, a Slack executive who oversees the Future Forum research, told Bloomberg. “Flexibility also improves a company’s culture and every time I tell executives this, it surprises them.”

Silver clouds
Rehmann’s Williams and Ulliance’s Sharkey agree that one positive to come out of the pandemic is a renewed focus on mental health. Workers are suffering burnout and depression, they agree, both of which are all in the mental health family.

It has moved front-and-center enough in mainstream thinking that seeking help isn’t as taboo as it used to be.

Kent Sharkey

Sharkey said he’s been in the business 35 years and, prior to the pandemic, counseling was viewed as something “only other people” needed. “They couldn’t hack it” was the kind of stoic message that resonated, he said.

“The #1 thing that has come out of the pandemic, in my opinion, is behavioral health is now recognized as physical health,” Sharkey said. “The reality is it’s always been the same, but people have historically viewed them very differently.

“If you have diabetes and go to the doctor that’s OK, but if you suffer from clinical depression ― which is created by a chemical issue in the brain ― it’s not,” he added.

There certainly are ways companies can help their employees navigate the psychological hurdles. The most popular is the Employee Assistance Program, which provides employees a basis for seeking counseling.

Williams said EAPs are “really helpful,” particularly when they’re good ones that offer more therapeutic sessions, for example.

SHRM President Johnny Taylor spoke at a recent Detroit Economic Club gathering and extolled the virtue of high-quality EAPs, according to Williams.

“(Taylor) said, ‘Companies offer EAPs, and that’s awesome and they should continue to do that, but it’s not enough. Offer more,’” Williams said. “Are you going to solve burnout, depression or grief in three sessions? No, you’re not. That has to be revamped in a different way.”

Use variety of tools
Counseling shouldn’t be the only tool companies use to deal with employees’ mental health, according to Williams. While talking is good, companies could also have professionals come in to help. One client, she said, has embraced wellness to include not only mental health wellness, but financial health wellness, giving employees the tools and addressing for their own benefit.

“They actually held workshops for their employees,” Williams said. “It was confidential, but it was to their employees’ benefit to say, ‘Hey, take this quiz about burnout. How burned out are you? What are some solutions you can come up with to counterbalance that? What can you do that works for you?’

“I’ve given talks like that, as well, particularly for HR people,” she added. “They took the brunt of it (through the pandemic) and they need to step back and take extra care for themselves.”

And if you think depression or burnout only affects the worker on the assembly line or the assistant at the desk, Ulliance’s Sharkey is quick to point out several high-level athletes who’ve succumbed.

Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Simone Biles have dealt with it. Tennis star Naomi Osaki withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon.

That’s how Sharkey thinks companies should look at their employees: as their own Olympians.

Injuries aren’t always physical
“These are the people who would go through walls to get a goal,” he said. “They’re highly intrinsically motivated. They don’t need to be told what to do. They have high levels of discipline, high levels of toughness.

(Osaka) stopped playing not because she had a physical injury, but because she had an emotional injury. As an employer, think about them as your Olympic performers.”

It typically falls on a company’s HR professionals to “take in all of this emotional information” for employees, Williams said, discovering things about them while helping them with things such as medical leaves for absences to take care of family.

“Many times those employees keep it hush-hush and suffer in silence,” Williams said. “The only ones they can tell, outside of their family, is HR. Not even their managers know, in some cases.

“Those are some of the examples of what an HR person takes home with them,” she added. “If they’re not finding a way to counterbalance that, then it becomes a part of them, they carry that extra emotional weight around. We’re emotional human creatures. We need people, we need release valves to talk things through.”

Sharkey doesn’t think it’s surprising that people are showing more depression and burnout as the effects of the pandemic ease. People, he said, are too caught up in what they’re dealing with at the time to notice.

Once those pressures ease, he said, people start to realize the effect it’s all having on them.

“When people are under extreme stress, they go into a fight, flight or freeze mode,” Sharkey said. “We don’t hear much about the freeze, but it’s actually very common. It’s why deer get hit on the highway, because they just freeze.

As the pandemic hit, people went into what Sharkey called “activation mode” to deal with the abnormal, extreme stressors that occurred. That, he pointed out, put them in fight mode ― survival mode ― and created a lot of emotional, and therefore physical, energy.

When things started getting better and settled down, workers could let down their guard, understanding “fight mode” wasn’t as necessary.

Letting our guard down
“So we began to relax a little bit … That’s when a lot of people start to feel not only the psychological impact of the depression … anxiety is experienced first, high levels of neurochemicals in our brain … and so they’re geared up,” Sharkey said. “Now they’re like, ‘OK, we can let our guard down,’ and so people become aware of their physical and emotional exhaustion. That’s what burnout is ― prolonged physical and emotional exhaustion.

“An example would be a death in a family. People are in this ‘activity mode,’ there’s people coming in from out of town, there’s funeral arrangements, there’s a lot of activity, there’s a lot of support,” he added. “What happens is everybody goes back home and lives their own lives. That emotional energy slows way down, and that’s when the depression and loneliness ― and grief ― set in.

“It’s the after-effects. It’s when the adrenaline, when the high emotional state we’ve been in begins to subside … that’s where we see more depression. We see a little less anxiety.”

While the statistics show there isn’t a huge difference between in-person and remote workers’ likelihood of depression and anxiety, researchers pointed out it’s an important difference that employers would be wise to pay attention to, SHRM reported.

“The differences in prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms between hybrid, remote and onsite are statistically significant. Our research illustrates that remote work may not be the ideal solution for every employee,” Candace Nelson, director of research at IBI, told SHRM, adding that more exploration of the topic is needed.

Isolation issues
Williams believes the depression and anxiety among employees working hybrid or remote schedules can be explained by one word: isolation.

Human beings are social creatures by nature ― “although some of us may be more introverted and need our alone time,” she said ― and sometimes all they get are little sound bytes through Zoom calls or Microsoft Teams meetings.

“But when you’re stuck in the 5-6 rooms in your own home, that’s a lot of (isolation),” she said. “There’s social connection, but it’s not the same as when you’re face-to-face in peoples’ presence. It’s the whole balance of it. You don’t know what someone’s going through at home. Why are they working extra? You don’t know if they’re trying to escape something or they’re trying to fill something.”

Williams stresses that managers are an important part of ensuring the mental well-being of employees, more so than the CEO or department heads. HR professionals wear so many hats, and managers fall into that realm, too.

“Sometimes that’s helpful and sometimes it can be dangerous,” she said. “There are tools and training managers can be equipped with … so they can spot these issues with their employees sooner. Instead of saying, ‘this employee is doing horribly at work,’ they are trained to pick up on those things and how to offer support.

“Managers have the highest touchpoints with those employees,” she added. “It’s not HR, it’s not the president of the company, it’s not any of the department head/director levels, it’s the direct managers. They don’t have to be armchair psychologists ― that’s dangerous ― but they need additional resources themselves.”

Individual needs
Rehmann’s Williams believes the pandemic has sort of forced companies to start paying more attention to the needs of individual employees.

She said that kind of attention is what potential candidates are looking for.

“They’re looking for flexibility,” she said. “What that means to you and what it means to me can be completely different things. ‘I have a unique set of needs that I need that I’m setting some boundaries and parameters for; can you help me maintain what I’m asking for in exchange for me providing you the best work I can provide?’

“Companies are coming more around in their thought process as to how you can structure that,” she added.

Most companies offer some form of EAP these days, but Sharkey believes it is still “an under-valued program.” For some organizations, he said, it’s merely a “check the box” thing.

The quality of the EAP varies, as well. In the industry, there are “low-quality” EAPs and there are “high-quality” EAPs.

While quality is in vogue now, as the pandemic drones on, it wasn’t always that way. When the economy tanked in 2009, for instance, Sharkey said the cheapest EAP was the most popular.

“Today, it’s the highest quality,” he said. Companies should have “a high-quality EAP that promotes monthly, that has a dedicated manager with a clinical background, that has a flexible versus a fixed number of visits. Leaders and HR professionals in companies recognize the importance of mental health.”

Sharkey believes the EAP is a good thing that’s getting better because ― particularly among young people ― the stigma of seeking help is less pervasive than it used to be.

When he started Ulliance 30 years ago, he said, HR people would ask, “Why would we get involved in people’s personal problems? Those are personal.” It was really a lengthy conversation, he said, about why employers should be concerned about their personal well-being.

“The HR manager was more frequently being put into the role of company psychologist,” Sharkey said. “We can’t separate our personal self from our professional self. We can’t just check that stuff at the door. When an employee is having a personal challenge, it often bleeds over into their performance.

“The issues have become more pervasive and employers are much more aware of it,” he added. “Today, if you’re an employer who isn’t aware that your employees’ personal problems impact their performance, your head is in the sand.”