business woman at home desk looking at phone with great dismay and hand to forehead Women showed a 46% rise in risk for general anxiety disorder between November and December. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As the physical toll of the pandemic continues to climb, so does the impact on the mental health of the U.S. workforce.

The state of mind of workers does not reflect the optimism and mental health relief hoped for with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. The risk of depression increased by 48% between November and December, according to the Mental Health Index: U.S. Worker Edition. This level of risk had not been seen since the height of the pandemic last spring. In addition, employees’ focus dropped 62%, which is a record low since the inception of the research in February 2020.

Related: Employers, employees feeling the strain of pandemic stress

The index, powered by Total Brain, is distributed in partnership with the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, One Mind at Work and the HR Policy Association and its American Health Policy Institute.

The brain assessments used to generate data for the latest Index were taken during the holiday season, often an anxiety-inducing time of year made more stressful by COVID19. Women showed a 46% rise in risk for general anxiety disorder between November and December. Further, at the end of December, women’s stress levels were 22% higher than their male counterparts.

“Heightened stress during the holidays is anticipated, especially for women who often bear the brunt of holiday planning,” said Louis Gagnon, CEO of Total Brain. “However, the Mental Health Index numbers are disconcerting just the same. We are seeing an unprecedented rise in risk of mental health conditions. At the same time, we are witnessing a sharp decline in cognitive functions.

“This is a crisis that should alarm everyone in the business community. Business policies designed to support the mental health of employees are essential. There is another pandemic going on, the mental health pandemic for which there will be no vaccine.”

Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance, agreed.

“After a prolonged period of environmental stress, the concerns about the mental health of our workforce are reaching new peaks,” he said. “Moving the vaccination strategy forward cannot come fast enough in our efforts to get back to normal.”

The challenge for employers is to find new ways to support the mental health of their employees.

“The data are showing what we’re all experiencing,” said Garen Staglin, chairman of One Mind at Work. “A year into the pandemic, it is hard to focus and not to be depressed by the raging pandemic. We must maintain focus, as this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Colleen McHugh, executive vice president of the American Health Policy Institute and strategic advisor for the HR Policy Association, is hopeful that vaccination will offer a light at the end of the tunnel.

“The findings of this report demonstrate the intensified anxiety and stress during the holiday season, coupled with employee focus at a record low since the beginning of the pandemic period,” she said. “While these results are clearly going in the wrong direction, our greatest hope is that Americans can begin to experience some relief with increased vaccine production and distribution, and through the ongoing safety guidelines focusing on well-being from their employers. We hope that these measures will start to advance better mental health results over the weeks and months to come.”

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