For millions of people, 2020 was a mentally and emotionally grueling year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40% of US adults experienced mental or behavioral health challenges. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that the percentage of US adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression tripled last year. Researchers in Europe and Asia found similar trends.


As a new year begins, hopes and fears are on the rise. The good news is that a number of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, and some business analysts are predicting that after a year of lay-offs and lost jobs, the economy will bounce back in 2021. But new coronavirus variants are emerging, causing case counts to remain high around the world. For many people, the pandemic-related stresses of 2020—fear of infection, social isolation, economic anxiety—have not subsided, leading many public health experts to warn that we are on the brink of a global mental health crisis.

Considering these conditions, now is an important time to evaluate the mental health of your workforce, particularly those at high risk for burnout, quarantine fatigue, anxiety and depression. Five employee populations may be particularly stressed right now. 

  • Caregivers. For many working parents and caregivers, last year was a blur. With schools out and daycares closed, parents with young children had to manage the dual responsibilities of work and childcare. One 2020 study found that working parents were losing two days of productivity a week due to stress and childcare. And it’s not just working parents who are struggling. One in six employees are caring for older relatives, a responsibility that has become increasingly difficult for many to manage over the course of this prolonged pandemic. Now—as distribution delays slow the vaccination process—many caregivers are realizing that this juggling act won’t end any time soon. In one recent study, we found that three out of ten working caregivers did not feel they were receiving the support they needed to manage their work and caregiving responsibilities.

  • Female managers. During the initial months of the pandemic, many business leaders and experts raised concerns about working women, calling attention to the extraordinary challenges many were facing. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg  warned, “Homeschooling kids and caring for sick or elderly relatives during the pandemic is creating a ‘double-double shift.’ It’s pushing women to the breaking point.” In our own research last year, we saw evidence of this. For example, in one longitudinal study of over 8,000 men and women working in a global organization, we found that female employees felt significantly more stressed, more time-constrained, and less supported than their male counterparts did. For women with managerial responsibilities, the situation was even worse: their stress levels were consistently the highest in the organization, and by a significant margin. As one female manager said, “We have too much work to do and not enough time and resources to get it done. That’s okay in short bursts, but it has felt relentless over the last nine months, especially during lockdown.”

  • Isolated individuals. For many employees, remote work has been one of the few silver linings of the pandemic. A growing body of research shows that remote work is associated with increased levels of employee engagement, commitment and performance. But for some, remote work has felt more lonesome than liberating. Researchers have found that high-intensity remote work arrangements (i.e., working exclusively outside the office) can cause a number of problems for employees, including social isolation, overwork, work-life imbalance and strained interpersonal relationships. Repeated lockdowns are causing loneliness levels to rise in many countries, particularly for those who are quarantining alone. 

  • Younger and older employees. The pandemic is eliciting a wide range of fears and anxieties. We’re finding that employee concerns vary by life stage and career stage. Many younger employees are worried about the security of their jobs and the future of their careers. As one Gen Z employee stated during a virtual focus group, “I know our jobs are safe for the short-term, but it’s the long-term that concerns me. What can I do to ensure my job is safe?” Many baby boomers, on the other hand, are concerned about their physical health. As one employee said, “When we decide to return to the office, I would like the option to continue to work from home. My husband is very high-risk and I am concerned about bringing it home even after it is deemed safe.” Financial insecurity is also a source of anxiety, and with good reason. Researchers have found that when employees over age 50 lose their jobs, they are more likely to experience long-term joblessness than are younger age groups. Despite these challenges, it is worth noting that a series of new studies suggest that older employees—in comparison to their younger coworkers—may be more psychologically resilient and able to cope with the mental health challenges of the pandemic.

The profile of at-risk employees may look different in your own organization. The best way to discover who needs help is to engage in honest, open, and supportive dialogues with your employees. Here are four steps to consider:

  1. Take a close look at your 2020 data. If you surveyed your employees last year, what did you learn? Many organizations take a bright-sided approach to survey analysis, focusing mostly on strengths and success stories. But when it comes to issues like mental health, you need to dig beneath the surface and search for employee populations that may be struggling. Careful data exploration using intersectional analysis and natural language processing can help.  

  2. Talk with your front line managers. One of the best ways to get a read on workplace stress is to talk with your front line managers and team leaders. What are they seeing and hearing from their direct reports? What are their employees worried about and struggling with? And, considering the critical and challenging nature of their role, how are your managers coping? Are they struggling with workload or compassion fatigue? One effective way to have these discussions—particularly during the pandemic—is via digital focus groups. New technology platforms like this one allow researchers to conduct online focus groups with as many as 1,000 people at once, and the anonymous format allows respondents to share their thoughts and observations in a candid way. 

  3. Ask employees about the current state of their mental and emotional wellbeing.
    Given the amount of suffering and stress the pandemic has caused, it is important that your employees reflect on the current state of their mental and emotional wellbeing. Researchers have found that repeated exposure to trauma can wear people down, leading to cumulative stress and anxiety. Cumulative stress, in turn, can cause a wide range of physical and emotional issues, including increased irritability, decreased motivation, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and unexplained aches and pains. Assessments like this one can help your employees understand how they are coping with the pandemic. Results can also help your leaders understand how they can promote workplace wellness and resilience.
  4. Raise awareness about your mental health and employee assistance programs.
    Many organizations have broad and comprehensive wellness and employee assistance programs (EAPs). But researchers have found they are often underutilized. One pre-pandemic study found that only 7% of employees were using their organization’s EAP counseling services. Experts have identified various reasons for low utilization, including lack of awareness about how these programs work, confusion about confidentiality, and concerns about the stigma associated with seeking support for mental health issues. Now is a critical time to determine if any barriers are preventing your employees from taking full advantage of your organization’s wellness and mental health offerings.
Patrick Hyland, PhD
By Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research