The way that companies address employee stress now is going to be key to a successful 2021

According to surveys, the pandemic’s impact on U.S. employees’ mental health has been profound. In August, the Centers for Disease Control reported that anxiety and depression tripled and quadrupled between April and June 2020. In a December 2020 online survey conducted by Harris Poll, 1,136 U.S. employees revealed that 76% of them currently experience burnout. Anxiety and depression are 23% and 30% higher than pre-COVID levels, according to a survey from Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions.

Not all employers appear willing to consider this their problem. One employer called me three weeks ago about one of their top producers who had, they said, “cracked up.” They told me, “It blindsided us. He’s been a ‘rock.’ After COVID hit, he seemed to take our company’s revenue problems on his shoulders. Some weeks he worked around the clock.”

Then they shocked me with their question. “Do we need to hold his job open for him?”

“He’s been there for you,” I responded. “Can you be there for him? An employee who takes your company’s problems on his shoulders deserves your loyalty.”

Here’s the rest of what I told them: The way that employers address employee stress is key to a successful 2021. The year-long pandemic, compounded by racial strife, political upheaval, natural disasters, COVID-fatigue, recession, extended isolation, disrupted routines, the pressure involved in shoehorning in home-schooling or caring for ill elderly family members, losing their traditional stress outlets, and the severe illness or deaths of loved ones and friends, have had a cumulative effect on many employees.

Our body reacts to stress by creating the hormone cortisol. Chronic high levels of cortisol impact the cognitive flexibility necessary to put things in perspective. Employees included in the survey by Total Brain and the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions showed a 31% decrease in cognitive abilities, such as the ability to focus, and a 7% decline in work performance. Burnt-out employees exhibit negativity, cynicism, detachment and reduced work performance. The World Health Organization estimates that mental health issues costs the U.S. $1 trillion in lost productivity per year.

Employees often don’t admit they’re in trouble until it’s inescapable. Some, like this employer’s “rock,” are committed to being part of the solution, not part of the problem. Other employees hide behind an “I’m fine” facade for fear of losing their job or harming their career.

It’s management’s job to be aware of the signs that an employee is spiraling down. This requires that managers engage with their employees, so they realize when an employee’s work performance disintegrates.

In hindsight, the changes are often obvious. Employees stop engaging or stop turning on their camera in meetings. Video feed both creates a greater sense of social support and makes spotting problems easier. Employee surveys may prove instrumental in identifying stressors employers can impact.

A supportive, savvy manager who notices an employee “on the edge” can connect via FaceTime, Skype or another video platform and say, “I’ve noticed a couple of things in your recent performance. What can we do to support you?”

If the employee admits to having a tough time, the manager can route the employee to an employee assistance program, the employer’s HR officer, a third-party coach or suggest the employee schedule a telemental health visit.

Employers that address isolation by connecting employees for virtual water cooler moments such as virtual painting or game nights find it pays huge dividends. Recent studies document that when employees develop a web of connections and relationships within an organization, they tend to remain with their employer.

Given that employees working from home compartmentalize less easily, employers may also want to reassess the amount of paid time off or unpaid leave they offer, and even, in the case of the employee “rock” who faltered, provide an unpaid sabbatical. We all need an occasional mental health day.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Managing for Accountability”; “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and Curry is President of Communication Works Inc. Send your questions to her at or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.