Closed offices and restaurants. Shuttered stores and museums. Darkened schools and theaters.
The current pandemic means that millions of Americans have lost their jobs or are working fewer hours. Those who are fortunate can work from home, or are slowly returning to work.
Vocational psychologists, who study the links between jobs and mental health, say that the current employment crisis and its impact on mental well-being presents some unique challenges. For many workers, mere days separated the warnings about Covid-19 in their area from the shelter-in-place orders that jolted, or ended, their employment.
And while the financial impact of unemployment or underemployment is a top concern, psychologists and social scientists have long understood that jobs are more than a paycheck. For many people, work provides a sense of identity, as well as psychological benefits that come from being productive. Many workers also benefit from the structure of a daily routine and a connection to the larger community.
“Work connects us to the rhythm of the world. It gives us a temporal sense of life,” said David Blustein, a professor of psychology at Boston College and the author of “The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Work Experience in America.”
A typical work schedule requires a person to get up at a set time and go through a routine in order to leave the house by a certain hour. “For people who are quarantining or in lockdown, we don’t have the same opportunities for that kind of structure,” Dr. Blustein said.
For some people, that lack of structure can feel like a deeply personal loss, Dr. Blustein said. Disrupted workers may have trouble organizing their time or even creating expectations for the day. “It can almost feel surreal to them,” he said.
This sense of unease and the stresses of unemployment, or of finding new ways to work, will be likely to continue in the coming months, as many states maintain various degrees of shelter-in-place orders. As the crisis continues, Dr. Blustein said that the negative impact on mental health will only increase.
People who are unemployed for six months or longer are at twice the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders compared to the general population, Dr. Blustein said. “The psychology of not being able to provide is devastating,” he said.
“You cannot deny having no money in your bank account. This is the highest level of stress,” said Ryan Duffy, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. “There are dozens of years of research showing that any kind of stress around survival needs and meeting those needs will be the highest in producing negative mental health outcomes.”
Studies by Dr. Duffy and other vocational psychologists have found, for example, that while a person’s sense of well-being drops significantly during periods of unemployment, it typically rebounds quickly to former levels when new work is secured. The exception to this well-being rebound, other research suggests, is when workers must change occupations. Employees who had been forced to switch to a new line of work that they hadn’t planned for reported a steady decline of job satisfaction that lasted for up to six years.
While the unemployed are at greatest risk for mental health issues, those new to telecommuting also face unique emotional challenges, Dr. Blustein said. Part of that comes from a blurring of boundaries between work and home, he said, as telecommuters face the challenges of setting up places to work in their private spaces.
“It is often hard to denote when the week is over and the weekend begins, because we are not shifting our location, daily activities or even our outfits,” Dr. Blustein said. “Life is interwoven in a web of endless days and, for many, a lack of clear structure and boundaries.”
Telecommuters who feel that work never ends can experience a continuous sense of stress or anxiety. Although social media is filled with jokes about working in sweatpants or forgetting the day of the week, the experience can feel isolating.
Dr. Blustein said telecommuters and furloughed workers also miss the connection of a larger shared experience. A rainy day, for example, that drenches commuters before they enter the office is a shared experience and an opportunity for commiseration. “Talking three or four minutes with a colleague or an administrative assistant about the weather — those are treasured parts of our lives. That’s part of what has been so unmooring about this experience,” he said.
The uncertainty about how long all of this will last compounds the problem. “I call it the age of uncertainty, because we don’t quite know what will happen,” Dr. Blustein said. “But we know the world of work has changed.”
Displaced workers, or those who are unemployed, who begin exhibiting self-destructive or dysfunctional behaviors, such as excessive drinking or “not being able to get out of bed,” should seek counseling or other forms of mental health treatment, said Robert Chope, a psychologist and professor emeritus at San Francisco State University. Signs of trouble may also be more subtle. “They are cynical. They are emotionally exhausted. People don’t want to be around them,” he said.
Organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association have websites with information and resources, including ways to connect with a therapist, Dr. Chope said. Free or low-cost treatments might be available by contacting local chapters of these organizations, he said, or by calling your local mayor’s or public health office and asking for a community mental health referral. Community and local faith-based groups may also be able to help.
Dr. Blustein also advises his clients to focus on other areas of their lives that can bolster a sense of identity and purpose, such as relationships, care giving, leisure activities and volunteering. Building an identity in other domains can help give people a sense of who in they are in the world separate from who they are in the work world.
“We need to find other sources of meaning for our lives,” Dr. Blustein said.
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