In mid-April 2020, the national unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent – the highest since the Great Depression. Forty-one million U.S. workers reported unemployment between February and May 2020.
However, unprecedented unemployment rates do not only affect the unemployed. For people still employed during the COVID-19 pandemic, job insecurity and financial anxiety are associated with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to findings from the UConn School of Nursing published recently in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, or JOEM.
“The impact of the virus and pandemic on the economy and employment is not surprisingly large,” says Natalie J. Shook, a social psychologist, associate professor at the School of Nursing and principal investigator of the study.
The findings are part of a one-year study of how behavior and social attitudes change and what factors influence those changes when people in the United States face the threat of widespread disease. With support from a donation from the National Science Foundation, the study tracks the well-being, feelings, and behavioral practices of about 1,000 individuals across the United States, and more than 18 surveys have been conducted among participants since March.
“We definitely see higher levels of anxiety among employed employees than among individuals who indicated they were not employed,” Shook says, noting that most study participants who are not employed are retired. “Demographic control, income level control, and also taking into account participants’ health and concerns about COVID – and the extent to which people have participated in social exclusion or quarantine – we see job security and financial concerns are important predictors of anxiety and depression “.
The study asked participants to identify symptoms of anxiety by wondering if they felt nervous, anxious, or sharp, or were unable to stop or control their anxiety. They were also asked about the extent of their financial concerns – how worried they are about their employment and financial situation, if they expect their financial situation to worsen over the next 12 months and if they have food and housing insurance for their family over the next 12 months.
Most study participants reported some level of concern about the effects of COVID-19 on their employment. Although previous studies have linked major disorders such as recession and pandemic to poor mental health, researchers note that their study extends significantly to these associations showing independent links between greater financial concern with greater anxiety symptoms and greater job insecurity with greater depression symptoms, after calculating demographic data, health and other issues and experiences related to COVID-19.
Shook and her research team say employers can play a crucial role in supporting the mental health of their employees by recognizing the increased anxiety workers experience when their job security feels threatened during a pandemic.
“Our results show the potential detrimental effects that job insecurity and financial concerns have on employee mental health,” the researchers write. “Based on these findings, for those who have symptoms of depression during a pandemic, it may be especially important for employers to be cautious and try to reduce feelings of insecurity for employees as well as instill hope or mood in employees. For those who feel anxiety about symptoms, employers could try reduce financial problems by allowing employees to continue working (eg teleworking), even with reduced working hours and income, to ensure that employees do not lose all income. “
This study was supported by the NSF Award no. 2027027. The UConn Institute for Health, Intervention and Policy Cooperation (InCHIP) is the governing institute for the award of grants. Please visit nsf.gov for more information and visit chip.uconn.edu to learn more about InCHIP and its suggestions for a quick response to COVID-19.
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