(Photo by FG Trade/iStock by Getty Images)

During the pandemic, the stressors in life haven’t come one at a time–they’ve piled on. Employees and managers have struggled with burnout. They’ve juggled working from home and child care. They’ve felt a sense of anxiety and fear across the social landscape. And now America’s workforce is faced with a lessening of restrictions and an equally stressful return to some semblance of normal life.

The result is a lot of psychological wear and tear. “There is a mental health crisis in this country,” said Karsten Vagner, senior VP of people for Maven, a virtual care platform for women’s and family health. Vagner cited data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that “half of employees today say they experienced high to extreme stress over the past year.”

The scope of the crisis, as well as new approaches for employee emotional well-being, were the focus of a conversation between Vagner and Cassidy Stevens, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) at Massachusetts General Hospital, who also provides care through Maven’s platform. Speaking at From Day One’s June virtual conference, “The New Benefits that Employees Need and Want Today,” Vagner and Stevens discussed historic shifts in the workforce and ways to increase support for worker health and wellness–particularly among underserved populations.

Maven partnered with Great Place to Work to conduct the largest-ever survey of working parents in the U.S. “We wanted to dig a little bit deeper–and here’s some of the insights that we found: 2.65 million women have left the workforce since February of 2020. We know that working mothers are experiencing burnout more than they ever have,” said Vagner. “Black mothers, in particular, are experiencing burnout. We know that 40% of parents are changing their job situation to balance work and child care. We haven’t been juggling one crisis this year, we’ve been juggling several crises all at once.”

Karsten Vagner, Maven's SVP of people (Photo courtesy of Maven)

"Eighty percent of employees say they would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employee mental health,” said Vagner, adding: “The irony is that we all have these people, especially from diverse groups, leaving their jobs at a time when more companies than ever before are looking to hire and retain diverse employees–and more job candidates are scrutinizing companies’ diversity strategies, too.”

As a mental health care provider, Stevens has seen firsthand the impact of burnout and other pandemic-related stressors. “Our systems are just overloaded right now,” she said, continuing: “With the medical complexity of the pandemic also came an increase in psychosocial complexity–so that includes mental health concerns, family dynamics, substance use concerns.”

“The patterns that I’m hearing are actually quite similar to what we see in the hospital environment,” she said. “Any underlying stressors that someone might have been experiencing before the pandemic, or before a hospitalization, they tend to be exacerbated and all bubble up to the surface when they come to the hospital. So the pandemic has actually been quite similar. Anything underlying, such as workplace burnout, mental health concerns–all of that bubbled up to the surface and actually worsened in the setting of the pandemic.”

Studies since the onset of the shift to work-from-home have repeatedly shown that productivity on the whole has increased, but that comes with an emotional cost. Stevens cited “the sense of pressure that you might have felt to demonstrate your performance accurately from home and especially in an environment where work layoffs were happening. That led to many employees developing unsustainable work habits, which is what I work with patients on, and then, especially, that unclear boundary between work and life.”

According to Stevens, establishing routine and structure is key to addressing these pressures and blurred lines.. “Most of the recommendations I provide are related to, one, creating structure, and two, setting boundaries. Distinguishing clear boundaries in the workplace can help optimize mental well-being and also, [from an] HR perspective, increased motivation from home. So that can include having a designated space to work that’s obviously not in your living, sleeping spaces. Or doing anything you can to maintain that routine and sense of normalcy, like mimicking a morning commute, doing anything that creates that sense of structure,” Stevens said. “From a mental health side, lack of structure, routine and social connectedness really creates an environment that is opportune for depressive symptoms.”

Cassidy Stevens, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) at Massachusetts General Hospital

On top of adjusting to remote work itself, many parents are attempting to demonstrate remarkable productivity to their managers while simultaneously taking on new roles as teachers to young children. A large percentage of them “felt like they were failing at both of their jobs,” Stevens said. The experience is often worse for underserved groups, including many Black mothers. “Just the chronic safety concerns and distress that Black mothers face on a daily basis have a significant impact on health,” Stevens said. “Stress hormones in the body like cortisol increase the number of health risks and hormonal dysregulation. Secondly, the person feeling persistently anxious, unsafe, worried, the whole gamut–that’s a lot of stress for the body and mind and soul.”

Employers need to be vigilant in recognizing such challenges, work on their cultural sensitivity, and, most importantly, implement meaningful support systems. “Rethinking work schedules, rethinking flexible, remote opportunities and benefit packages, really helps modify the environment to be more supportive for everyone,” Stevens said, adding that perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic will be the increased conversation about employee mental health and well-being.

“What’s great to me is that there’s a whole conference right now talking about this–really talking about mental health at work and stating that mental health matters,” she said. “But what’s important is going beyond that and creating those systems and structures that can really demonstrate to employees that their mental health matters–and particularly for underrepresented populations who are at greater risk of facing distress.”

Such longer-term, solid plans–fortified by increased employer awareness and openness–will be crucial in maintaining productivity and easing workplace transitions as post-pandemic life gradually evolves. But employers must be vigilant when it comes to mental health, Vagner said, and committed to implementing long-term support strategies. “We can’t be short-sighted,” he said. “When the pandemic is done (whenever that is) and we resume normal life (whenever that is), these issues aren’t going to just disappear.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership spotlight, Maven.

Sheila Flynn is a Denver-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, the Sunday Independent, and the Irish Daily Mail. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.