The Result of Covid-19 on Mental Health and Employment

Two reports from the UK are painting very different pictures of the mental health impact of Covid-19 and unemployment. One, as reported in The Atlantic, determines that the mental health effects of the pandemic were not as severe as many thought they would be. Another, as reported in Bloomberg, states that the mental health impact has been very serious indeed, and that behavioral difficulties felt during the shutdown are keeping many people from returning to work.

People are more resilient than they are given credit for, and countless crises throughout history have torn lives to pieces; lives that individuals then put back together as they moved on and once again thrived. There is no reason our experience with Covid should be any different. We should be impressed how most people have adapted, especially to the challenges the shutdown placed on their jobs. But a sizeable group of people had financial and mental health challenges going into the pandemic, and for many of them things have not gone so well.

While there is evidence (as reported in the Lancet paper that is the basis for The Atlantic article) that the suicide rate, which was expected to skyrocket during the pandemic, actually declined during 2020, it is indisputable that a sizeable number of people, as many as 40% of the population, report a decrease in mental health as the pandemic grinds well into 2021. This may be most blatantly revealed by how people have returned to work and who has been unable to return to work.

There’s a great debate in the US about why so many businesses have jobs available and so few people are applying for them. Reasons given include the ongoing payment of extra unemployment compensation that makes it more lucrative to stay home, the inability of many workers, especially women, to secure childcare so that they can return to work, the fact that many of the jobs available just don’t pay well, and the fear some who are unemployed have of getting sick. Overlooked, and corrected by the Bloomberg article, is that some people, especially a sizeable number of young people, have developed mental illness during the pandemic so severe that it prevents them from seeking, and holding, jobs.

30% of those currently unemployed report the aggravation or development of mental illness that makes a return to work difficult, and one in four workers aged 19-24 reports pessimism about their financial future as a result of the shutdown’s impact on their loss of work and their ability to find work. With government support programs coming to an end, these people are now in danger of permanent damage to their prospects unless policy makers make helping them back to work a top priority.

In this dilemma faced by people finding it difficult to return to work we have the opportunity to reconsider the role work plays in positive mental health. Too often, when someone is trying to overcome a mental illness, family and healthcare workers take the point of view of, “let’s get you better then you’ll be able to find a job.” In fact, as Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer state, “work is not necessarily what follows after all the other problems have been solved and people are ‘ready,’ but is part of the recovery process itself.” To this end we need to encourage policy makers and employers to consider strategies such as flexible work schedules, job sharing and supported employment in an effort to get people with mental illness back to work.

We have spent a lot of stimulus money assisting those forced out of work by the shutdown forced on us by the response to the pandemic. This was appropriate. But now jobs are available and the continuation of such support is neither feasible nor desirable, both from an economic standpoint and for the benefit of those needing assistance. True help will come when we proactively enable those currently unemployed due to mental health symptoms find meaningful work that promotes productivity and independence. To do otherwise risks creating a cycle of despondency and dependency that will threaten to force a large group of people, especially young people, out of the workforce and into financial challenges and poor career prospects they may never recover from.