YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A global pandemic, war in Ukraine, inflation, racial tensions, the politics of the day and a rapidly changing business environment.
Suffice to say, the last few years have included their fair share of big events. And they’ve created new – in many cases exacerbated – sources of stress, particularly in the workplace.
The pandemic alone has created “considerable disarray” in the personal lives of some, says Dr. Ronald Dwinnells, CEO of One Health Ohio. That can include disorganization in households or chaos in daily routines, he says.
“The trends I see after being a physician for 40 years is that mental health and behavioral health issues have become much more obvious than in the past,” Dwinnells says. “Human beings tend to be creatures of habit and when routines are disrupted, sometimes it throws them off while they keep trying to function efficiently and effectively.”
Stress from such disruptions can cause anxiety, nervousness and sleeplessness, which can lead to fatigue and depression, he says. That can mean lost productivity among workers.
A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that a majority of Americans (72%) aren’t as afraid about getting COVID-19 as they were at the height of the pandemic. But 58% agree that it’s still a daily stressor.
While Americans continue to live with that stress two years after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, money, inflation and war have become just as significant, if not more stressful.
According to the survey, 87% say higher prices of everyday items – gasoline, utilities, groceries – are their top stressor, followed by supply chain issues (81%), global uncertainty (81%), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (80%) and potential retaliation from Russia, such as cyberattacks or nuclear threats (80%).
Stress about money is at its highest level among Americans since 2015, the survey found.
“The number of people who say they’re significantly stressed about these most recent events is stunning relative to what we’ve seen since we began the survey in 2007,” says Dr. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association. “Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years. But these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.”
Worker shortages are also causing stress as some employees “are job-hopping considerably, trying to seek better-paying opportunities,” Dwinnells says. This trend has hit the medical industry particularly hard as providers struggle to find qualified personnel.
“This is certainly a strain for those who are working and trying to get the work done,” he says. “This leads to more fatigue, frustrations, anxieties and stress. Eventually there is significant burnout and depression and other mental health issues may ensue.”
These conditions are further affected by the change in workplace routines over the last few years. In health care, for example, many providers are employing telehealth practices, which are new and require a level of technical ability and can be stressful for some, Dwinnells says.
As companies adopted more remote work environments, it may have caused feelings of isolation and a sense of loneliness for extroverts. Meanwhile, introverts mostly don’t want to socialize with people again when they can have the quiet of a home environment. They are anxious about returning to work, he says.
“All these can play havoc on a person’s psyche and render stress to them – again leading to anxiety and nervousness and perhaps depression,” Dwinnells says.
To help with that transition back to the workplace, all One Ohio Health employees were also given an additional week of paid time off.
Increased stress plays a role in an individual’s physical health as well, says Jessica Smylie, communications and marketing director for the American Heart Association.
“When it comes to your mental health and physical health, both of those play an important role on your heart health as well,” she says.
Indeed, sustained “survival mode” during the pandemic led to entrenched unhealthful behaviors, particularly increased drinking to cope with the stress, and weight gains. More than half (51%) of U.S. adults surveyed by the American Psychological Association disagreed that their lives have gotten healthier during the pandemic. Forty-two percent rely on unhealthful habits to cope with stress.
More than half of respondents (58%) said they’ve experienced undesired weight changes. The average weight gain was 26 pounds, with a median 15 pounds, the survey found.
In addition to life stress, employees can stress about long hours, finances and job security. Work-related stress is associated with about a 40% increased risk for cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack or stroke, says the heart association’s Smylie.
Making lifestyle changes one at a time and starting small can help individuals to improve their overall health. Taking walks each day, even if just 15 minutes, can be beneficial.
“Studies show that when you go for a walk or do any sort of physical activity, that also boosts your mood and your emotional health,” she says. “So that work-life balance is a really important key to workplace health and emotional health.”
The American Heart Association encourages companies to invest in the mental and physical health of employees. It offers training and education programs to that effect. Getting employees involved in workplace health programs also increases their productivity by 45% and the quality of their work by 36%, she says.
Health programs offered by the organization include blood pressure lunch-and-learns and screenings for employees, as well as CPR classes. The organization also encourages employees to get to their doctors once a year to learn their blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol numbers.
“A lot of people don’t know what a healthy blood pressure number is – or what their numbers are,” Smylie says. “We set up blood pressure screenings and people can get their blood pressure taken, learn what their levels are and if they’re at a point where they should seek medical care.”
Awareness is the most important step when promoting good mental health to workers, says One Health’s Dwinnells. “If we are aware of an issue or situation, then we can possibly help solve the issue or problem,” he says.
Dwinnells advises employers to watch for employees who act out or experience behavioral changes, exhibit emotionally charged behaviors or speak negatively, he says. If asked, individuals typically don’t refrain from telling others that they are depressed or anxious.
“But we need to ask,” he says. “We as employers can very easily ask, ‘Is everything OK? What happened to you today? What is bothering you?’ It is surprising how soon people will open up and tell you.”
One Health maintains an internal behavioral health department that includes medication-assisted treatment for addiction, Dwinnells says. The company also puts each employee through an orientation program that introduces the concepts of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE.
ACE describes how people who grew up in adverse conditions can have significant social and behavioral health issues and many times do not function well in society, he says. They can have mental issues, become drug addicts, turn to crime or attempt suicide. The idea for having this as part of employee orientation is individual awareness, he says.
“Many people do not understand why they behave the way they do,” Dwinnells says. “If they are aware that perhaps they fit into this category, then interventions can take place and it may help them. This is a great work-place tool to help our employees.”