A lot of people I talk to haven’t been feeling like themselves lately. They are exhausted but can’t sleep; their heart is racing, their muscles ache and they have trouble concentrating.
There’s a baseline of worry that won’t go away, even among people who typically roll with stress. Welcome to what the news is reporting as “pandemic induced anxiety.”
U.S. Census Bureau data shows the jump in people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression happening as COVID-19 became a part of our lives, going from 11% of adults from January-June of 2020 to 42% by December.
While most everyone has been impacted by the pandemic, research consistently shows that among the most vulnerable to these struggles are women with children, essential workers, and those who lost employment (the last two categories are made up of more women than men). Women are at higher risk for mental declines from either the additional responsibility of both working at home and taking care of their family or feeling isolated and lonely.
With World Mental Health Day coming up on Oct. 11, I want to share the qualitative findings of the Utah Women & Leadership Project’s recent research brief regarding the most oft-mentioned impact of the pandemic: mental and physical health.
Our participants most often described the effects of mental health decline as actual diagnoses, including stress, general mental health decline, anxiety, guilt and failure, burnout, fatigue, depression and loneliness. Respondents also described indirect effects, such as their work suffering, the inability to focus or be productive, feeling overwhelmed and feeling like a failure in all areas of their lives — a brand new experience for many of them.
Half of all women surveyed reported a spike in stress. Many reported a general toll on their mental health without a specific classification. One woman shared, “I feel like I’ve been exposed to a trauma repeatedly over the last 10 months and my typical coping mechanisms are drastically reduced ... (with) no timeline for knowing when they will come back, keeping a positive outlook or good mental health has been a huge struggle.”
Managing stress by keeping perspective is a common coping technique. We take comfort knowing that hard times aren’t forever, like the terrible twos or the more terrible teens. Or we deal with stress knowing we can pull the ripcord on a bad job or bad relationship.
Bottom line is, we take solace in not feeling trapped. The pandemic, however, has turned “unprecedented” into the norm.
Constant stress leads to “burnout,” a state characterized by mental and physical exhaustion and a depletion of motivation. One respondent put it this way: “There is no relief to the pressure. I can’t do more, be more, earn more ... there isn’t anything left!” She also mentioned that she had signed up to see a counselor and was told the wait would be months, which made her feel more despondent.
These types of stressors increase physical ailments, as well. For instance, one respondent said, “The expectation to just step up and do more work for less pay, even though others were furloughed or laid off, has been demoralizing and has led to stomach ulcers, bad sleep, burnout, and likely a job change.” Other women reported an increase in migraines, back trouble, digestive issues and weight gain, not to mention the impact on those who actually get COVID-19.
There are important actions that can support the mental and physical health of Utah women in the workforce. First, all women, especially women of color and those with low household income levels, need better access to mental health care to heal and thrive. People cannot wait months to see a counselor. Employers can ensure adequate mental health coverage in insurance options and foster an atmosphere that acknowledges and supports mentally healthy activities and lives. Legislators can support mental health coverage amendments, mental health days for students and employees, and overdose and suicide prevention programs.
Bottom line, when even the strongest and most resilient among us are buckling under the ongoing strain, we must make sure that even if the end isn’t in sight, relief is.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.