The Impact of Coronavirus on Essential Workers' Mental Health

woman working at grocery store wearing protective mask

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional stress for essential workers. 
  • Signs of stress can include depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, irritability, and social withdrawal. 
  • Regular exercise, sleep, self-care, and social support are all strategies that can help combat stress and burnout.

Much of the nation is focused on the adverse effects of COVID-19. The number of deaths, the percentage of negative or positive tests, the economy, unemployment, and when we can go back to work and living life are all on our minds.

We talk a lot about the mental health of people in quarantine, families who have lost loved ones, and the overall morale of Americans as we face both a medical and economic crisis. But what about those who are on the front lines? They are facing all of this AND battling an epidemic that is taking a toll on their mental health. 

The Challenge Essential Workers Face

For frontline workers like first responders and medical professionals, avoiding contact with other people is not an option. Social distancing may only happen some of the time, and going to work each day presents significant obstacles and challenges, both physically and emotionally. 

While many of us can choose whether or not we want to venture out of our homes, that’s not the case for millions of essential workers. And with a shortage of personal protective equipment, many of these workers are going to work each day not knowing if they will become infected. 

It’s no wonder this heightened level of uncertainty is taking a toll on their physical and mental health. 

NurseFly conducted a survey about the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers, which includes some data around the topic of mental health. The survey pool, which consisted of over 1,380 healthcare professionals, looked at insights from hospital workers on the frontlines nationwide. 

More specifically, it analyzed hospital preparedness, operations, and the outlook on recovery. Since the COVID-19 crisis escalated, nearly 80% of respondents feel more stressed in their job. In regards to mental health resources, only 40% reported their hospital has established specific COVID-19 resources for mental health support. 

How Daily Stress Impacts Mental Health

Under normal conditions, daily stressors can have a significant impact on our mental health. But when your body is run down from long days or stressful shifts without a break, it’s only a matter of time before psychological and physical health starts to suffer. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), adverse psychological responses to an infectious disease outbreak such as COVID-19 can trigger insomnia, increased use of alcohol and tobacco, reduced feelings of safety, and physical symptoms such as lack of energy and aches and pains.

Studies have shown increased rates of anxiety and depression in healthcare workers dealing with this crisis. And while the severity of symptoms can vary, experts say there are some common red flags to be aware of, especially when dealing with a pandemic. 

Signs of Psychological Distress

“Psychological effects may include grief reactions, sadness, anxiety, depressed mood, guilt, shame, a desire to isolate or withdraw, and feeling irritable or angry,” says Logan Jones, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Clarity Therapy Online. Similarly, he says individuals may feel hopeless or experience intrusive thoughts related to being exposed to potentially traumatic events.

Cognitive effects may manifest as difficulties with memory and concentration, while physical symptoms, says Jones, may present as fatigue, headaches, heightened startle responses, aches and pains, muscle tension, and digestive problems. Changes in sleep patterns and dietary habits are also common. 

But it’s the expectation that frontline workers are essential, which often leads to very little time for rest, that has Jones and other experts really concerned. “The idea that they must act superhuman, despite all odds, is an unhealthy recipe for burnout,” says Jones.

This heightened level of stress, day in and day out, increases the stress hormone cortisol which, unfortunately, can have a negative impact on the body’s vital immune response.

Why Essential Workers Are at Greater Risk

Doreen Marshall, PhD, vice president of mission engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is also concerned about front line workers and their mental health. “Essential workers are remaining strong and resilient for their patients, families, friends, and communities; however, the great personal risk they are taking to keep everybody else safe and healthy can have a toll on their own mental health,” she explains. 

And what we have to remember, says Marshall, is that even those who are used to managing high intensity, stressful work situations are now facing new challenges and stressors such as different access to necessary medical resources and the increased volume of severely ill patients, along with anxiety about their own health and fears related to spreading infection.

Doreen Marshall, PhD

Any change can bring with it stress, but we know that stress of longer duration and more intensity without remitting can have a negative impact on one’s mental health.

— Doreen Marshall, PhD

Add this to the fact that many of them are having to physically isolate themselves due to exposure to the virus and things get worse. Marshall says our essential workers are also dealing with limited access to the connections and relationships outside of work that typically help them manage work-related stress. “This disruption in one’s regular social connections can induce feelings of loneliness and depression," she says.

There are also concerns about healthcare workers who may have experienced traumatizing events while treating COVID-19 patients that left them with a sense of helplessness or feeling overwhelmed. “As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, its impact on mental health for the long-term is unknown,” Marshall says. 

That’s why she believes that now, more than ever, healthcare workers need to take steps to safeguard their mental health by intentionally staying connected with friends and family (even through virtual means), engaging in an open and honest dialogue about their mental health, practicing self-care, and maintaining healthy habits like regular sleep and exercise, and reaching out to a mental health professional for additional support.

Tips for Essential Workers

Feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty are a daily occurrence for essential workers. During such an unprecedented time, Marshall says it’s imperative that those on the front lines understand they are not alone, and there are proactive steps they can take to care for their mental health during the pandemic and beyond.

Engaging in physical activity, eating healthfully, and getting adequate sleep and rest are critical for boosting health. Additionally, experts say the following tips can help workers manage chronic stress, reduce burnout, and protect their mental health. 

Reach Out If You Need Support

While you may be physically distant from others at this time, Marshall says it’s important to stay connected with friends, family, and the community. “Turning to the people who are supportive and can listen provides a safe space to discuss what you’re feeling, what helps you maintain mental well-being, and other things that provide you a sense of calm,” she says.

If you feel you have no one to turn to, Marshall recommends reaching out to people who are trained to listen and help, such as mental health providers. Several cities, communities, and even state-wide mental health organizations have set up helplines for essential workers.

Nationally, anyone can call the Crisis Text Line (Text TALK to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800 273-TALK (8255) if they are concerned about themselves or a loved one. 

Take Time to Focus On Yourself

If you’re an essential worker, Jones says you can take care of yourself by acknowledging that you need your own time to recuperate. “Essential workers could benefit from some time in therapy, where they can finally have a sacred, private, emotional space to appreciate and process what they’ve witnessed,” he says. 

Employ Self-Soothing Techniques 

According to Jones, practical solutions and grounding practices can have a highly positive impact on our emotional well-being. “Progressive muscle relaxation, deep-breathing exercises, guided mindfulness meditation, positive affirmations and visualizations, and free-flow journaling are simple, immediate, easily applicable tools you can put into place now,” he says. 

How to Support Essential Workers

Worry and anxiety are contagious, and people sense it. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, the executive director of Innovation 360, says employers should consider adjusting expectations of performance, allow more time for tasks or goals to be met, and understand that there will be a lot of little conversations that help employees more than you realize. “We are all carrying more stress than normal, and that means it's harder and more difficult to do our jobs,” he explains. 

If you have an employee that has been at the company for a while and you know the level of their performance, Gilliland says to remind them of that, and that their current struggles are the exception, not the rule.

Employers can also look at leadership within their organizations, says Jones, to ensure they are truly attuned to the needs of their workers. “We depend on individuals who provide an invaluable essential service, and the reality is, the organization wouldn’t exist or be able to maintain themselves without them,” he adds.

Encourage Open Communication

One of the best things we can do to protect and support the mental health of those on the front lines during this time, says Marshall, is to reach out to them and have authentic conversations and convey support, especially related to their mental health.

Doreen Marshall, PhD

Having open, honest discussions about mental health can be the first important step in understanding where someone is with their mental health and help those on the front lines maintain mental well-being, stay connected, stay realistic about what’s in their control, and provide support during these trying times and beyond.

— Doreen Marshall, PhD

While individual experiences may vary, Marshall says it’s important for all essential workers to know that we’re all in this together and they are not powerless in this situation.

What This Means For You

Ensuring that our frontline and essential workers have access to continued mental health services is a critical component to managing the long-term consequences of COVID-19. We must remember that even as hospitals begin to see a reduction in cases, the emotional toll of battling this pandemic is far from over.

Finally, if you’re thinking about suicide or suspect someone you love is in danger of hurting themselves, seek help immediately. Call 911, and if possible, stay with a friend or family member (or with the person you are concerned about) until help arrives. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Sara Lindberg, M.Ed
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on mental health, fitness, nutrition, and parenting.