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Widespread Stress and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Highlights Need for Global Mental Health Reform

The Ethics and Compliance Initiative® (ECIWorking Group and companion White Paper Report "Positioning Ethics and Compliance as a Strategic Leader in Times of Stress or Crisis" was established in part to study the ethical effects of internal and external workplace stressors.The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most significant stressors addressed; however, the group also considered other stressors in the workplace, including but not limited to: mergers and acquisitions; changes to product lines; regulatory or legal actions against a company; impact of penalties and monitoring; negative media coverage; and organizational and structural changes within an organization.


The global pandemic was also a natural backdrop to research what began as an acute public health crisis that developed into a chronic stressor in and of itself, and literally every employee in every business globally has been affected, directly and/or indirectly. Finding the silver linings in any overwhelming challenge helps to discover universal lessons and opportunities to learn and grow as we collectively move forward into reopening phases, as this is one of those rare situations when a crisis is not experienced in isolation. Although COVID has brought multiple challenges, it has also brought the opportunity to address the effects of these issues in a high profile and priority level, not only on stakeholder health and well-being level, but also pull back the curtain regarding their adverse impacts upon ethical conduct and decision making.


We continue to receive data that verifies that no one is immune from the adverse mental and emotional ripple effect impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, and serves to underscore how critical it is to remove the long-term stigmas surrounding the subject of human mental health in the workplace. Moving forward, the organizations that lead the way in proactively acknowledging all aspects of human health will set new standards in how leadership and the overall workplace culture will be modeled and its direct impact upon the level of Readiness, Responsiveness and Resiliency of all stakeholders will be undeniable.

"...the notion of resilience as an individual trait, something you have - and can lose - ignores that resilience is understood by researchers to be a dynamic, and varied, process. 'If you can just control your mind, then you will be resilient - that is actually an outdated idea,' said Michael Ungar, the director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. 'But it’s still very popular.'


"Resilience is not the steely resolve of a person who is never fazed, and picks themself up again over and over. Instead, resilience is help-seeking, self-care, and accessing institutional support - all things people reach for that they may associate with resilience waning. Those are not byproducts of failing at resilience but adaptive and flexible coping strategies that could help to foster resilience later on.

“People have been coping for a long time with this pandemic,” Ungar said. “And that’s great because we have no choice -we have to cope. But people at some point wanting to say, ‘I’m done’- that reaction could also be a sign of resilience. After a while, to release a certain amount of frustration is not necessarily a sign of vulnerability, but it could be part of the process of preserving your mental health.” 

"In this way, resilience can be thought of as both something that will emerge later on and a skill that we can work to build now. It's interactive, community-based, and can look different each day. It’s both the ability to be strong in the face of difficult times, and also knowing when to be soft, and compassionate to yourself."

Source: "We’re All Burned Out and Exhausted. It Doesn’t Mean We’re Not Resilient." - Shayla Love

As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly abates globally, double down on healthy self-care practices, mutual support and basic human kindness, patience, empathy and generosity. With that said, here are a few suggestions that can help during this time of transition: 


Continue to do your best to:

  • eat well and exercise

  • reach out to one another

  • listen to each other

  • know its ok to not feel ok - you don't need to just "tough it out"

  • ask for help when you need it, and when the need feels dire, seek professional help, emergency and crisis services 

  • help others when you can - small gestures can go a long way

  • avoid assuming that everything will be great when the pandemic is over

  • encourage each other and keep your morale up as we all navigate what is to come

  • remember that we will always carry the shadow and the pain of this pandemic, some more than others. None of us is alone

Featured Resource:

On this page we'll be sharing some of the current data and insights,

and we will continue to update with the latest findings.

Self-Care is Not the Solution for Burnout

We need to address the systemic and cultural dimensions of burnout

"While there have been important explorations into the experiences of burnout including individual’s symptoms and experiences, it has often led to solutions that also solely focus on said individuals. This creates the impression that burnout originates within individual people.

"If we think that burnout happens because of weaknesses or vulnerabilities of an individual worker, then we are less likely to assess work environments and work cultures that cultivate burnout as a logical outcome to poor working environments, hostile work cultures for those with marginalized identities, unreasonable work expectations, ineffective leadership, and problematic work values. We are less likely to investigate the ways workplace policies and economic resources may contribute toward burnout environments.

"This is similar to how we can put effort and energy to put out isolated forest fires but if we are not addressing the climate crisis that is increasing both the frequency and intensity of said fires, then we are not addressing the problem directly.

"A great deal of the public focus on burnout has zeroed in on the skills and deficits of individual workers all the while three decades of research has demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover."


Justin D. Henderson, PhD, 1/13/22


A survey of about 1,500 people from 46 countries demonstrated the vast majority struggled with general and workplace wellbeing as the pandemic continued to be a global health challenge.

Source: The Kaiser Family Foundation's COVID information project.

In a comprehensive report published by McKinsey in December 2020 titled "COVID-19 and behavioral health: Consequences for companies and employees," they state:

"The pandemic is exacerbating the US behavioral-health crisis, with stress, social isolation, and unemployment fueling up to $140 billion in added spending. A holistic approach to healthcare can help.


"What we’ve seen happen in the pandemic is not only the impact on the physical side, with some of the increased risk and the significant rate of those contracting COVID-19, but also on the mental side. We’ve seen an exacerbation of existing behavioral-health conditions—both mental and substance-use disorders—for individuals who face a disruption in care with some of the challenges underway, and we’ve also seen a new onset of conditions. There’s been a significant spike in reports of depression, anxiety, and substance use." Erica Hutchins Coe, a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office


This is happening across the board, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, or background composition. It’s creating additional stress for children and adults alike. We’ve been doing some modeling that has shown that we can expect a potential 50 percent increase in the prevalence of these behavioral-health conditions that could lead to $100 billion to $140 billion of additional spend in the US just in the first 12 months post onset.

And I think one important thing to remember is that there are much-longer-term effects of the pandemic. These are going to take a toll for years to come. Sometimes the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder does not even appear right away. And this isn’t just from the pandemic; it’s also from the ensuing financial crisis that’s been happening. People have faced job loss or other economic uncertainty, adding additional pressure and stress.

A December 2020 report published by McKinsey and Company titled "Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution" states:


"Preexisting mental health challenges have been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Based on their analysis, COVID-19 could result in a potential 50 percent increase in the prevalence of behavioral health conditions. A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 45 percent of Americans felt that the COVID-19 crisis is harming their mental health; while 19 percent felt that it is having a “major impact.” In a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans reported feeling anxious at least a few days per week since the onset of the pandemic. Between mid-February and mid-March 2020, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications increased 34 percent. During the week of March 15, when stay-at-home orders became pervasive, 78 percent of all antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia prescriptions filled were new (versus refills)."


A study published in a PwC Pulse survey states that Chief Human Resource Officers plan to increase support for well-being and mental health in 2021. Ethics professionals can play a major role in advancing initiatives like these along with HR and all levels of leadership and management, tangibly demonstrating that chronic stress produces unintended consequences well beyond the detrimental impacts upon health and well-being. It truly is a team effort that can strengthen trust, boost morale and facilitate a healthy workplace culture that attracts highly desirable job candidates – and retain them once they're hired. The root causes of chronic stress arising from the workplace environment itself must be openly and safely addressed, and not just by placing the burden upon the shoulders of the employees who have to contend with it every day. A focus upon trust is key to the successful implementation of new skills and complimentary leaderships approaches.


And as the world gradually moves forward into what "life after COVID" will be like in both our personal and professional lives, the broad acknowledgement of the adverse impacts of stress upon our overall wellbeing alone has continued a push to require organizations to be proactive instead of willfully blind. The mental health of everyone in the organization must be supported throughout all levels of leadership and reflected within the entire culture through actions, trainings and initiatives that "move the needle" in terms of sustainable behavioral change. Organizations that refuse to offer the same tired and ineffective "check the box" programs are recognizing that genuinely increasing productivity and performance includes a balanced approach that demonstrates empathy and taking ownership for the stress created by a toxic culture and leadership/management.


Changes must occur to make leading through times of internal and external change and crisis effective, and a mindset that welcomes assistance and fresh perspectives coupled with a "check your ego at the door" humble yet strong, adaptive, courageous and growth-oriented provides clear-headed guidance and resilience. During these times, people look to a leadership that can remain calm during any sort of turbulence, as well as be a trusted compass to keep from going astray ethically by tangibly providing a sense that all employees are genuinely cared about, and for.

McKinsey Quarterly:

Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution

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