The Persistence of the Pandemic and a Mental Health Awakening (Part 1)

Podcast: Line on LeaveAs we near the two-year mark of the pandemic, we’ve learned to adapt to multiple versions of the ‘new normal’. In the workplace, there’s been an emphasis on employee well-being and the importance of discussing mental health.
Our latest episode of The Line on Leave features Dr. Christine Crawford, associate medical director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Adele Spallone, head of clinical operations for The Hartford Worker’s Compensation and Group Benefits, as they discuss burnout among U.S. workers and the importance of mental health in the workplace.
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Laura Marzi: Hello everyone. I'm Laura Marzi. Thank you for tuning into our latest Line on Leave podcast from The Hartford. The pandemic continues to shape how we live and work. And now the burnout that people feel is becoming more and more real. We've seen how attitudes are shifting about how we think and talk about mental health, both in the workplace and in society in general. And the pandemic may have been the catalyst, but keeping the conversation moving forward requires awareness, understanding, and commitment from everyone.
We have an exciting lineup today. I'm joined by Adele Spallone, who is a licensed behavioral health clinician and oversees clinical operations for The Hartford's Group Benefits and Workers' Compensation businesses. And that also includes a disability behavioral health unit.
Also, joining us today is Dr. Christine Crawford, who's the Associate Medical Director with NAMI. And that's the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She's also an Assistant Professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. The Hartford has been partnering with NAMI for over a year to help break down stigma and encourage support and treatment. And we are very proud of this partnership and proud to be a stigma-free company.
The Hartford has been taking the pulse of U.S. employers and workers' attitudes and actions all through the pandemic, and in fact, our latest survey filled this past July, found that 6 in 10 workers are still experiencing burnout at work, and that, believe it or not remains unchanged since February of 2021.
The workers we surveyed said that the burnout is something they're experiencing always or often. And in many cases, burnout is leading people to look for a new job. That same survey that we put out in the field shows that of the workers who planned to look for a new job this year, 55% of them say they always feel burned out.
So burnout seems to be ongoing. Adele and Dr. Crawford, can you help us understand why that is? And Adele, maybe we'll start with you. What are your thoughts on this topic?
Adele Spallone: Yeah, so burnout is, in fact, a real problem. I think many of us thought this pandemic by now would have been over. So, we're more uncertain now than before. And the pandemic fatigue definitely continues. So, we started in a place where we were trying not to catch the virus, but over time, we've seen many individuals having been exposed and having contracted the virus. Then the uncertainty expanded with the additional focus on the variants, the vaccinations, boosters, and masks guidance. Going back to the work site, also creating stress for many who had adjusted to remote work. And then on the flip side, if you're still working remotely, the lines between home and work continued to be blurred. I also can't underscore the amount of unexpected grief people have been grappling with. We know the pandemic has resulted in a significant number of deaths.
So, people grieving lost loved ones to the virus, and many still experiencing severe anxiety and depression. Really just trying to make sense of all of this. You also mentioned Laura, that the survey revealed that burnout is likely to cause employees to search for a new job. I would absolutely agree with that. The pandemic has turned people's lives upside down, and as a result, people are rethinking their priorities and their values. United States workers are specifically looking for flexible schedules. They want a better workplace culture. And I think culture is something they didn't really pay that much attention to before, but now seems to be more important to them. They're looking for continued remote work options. And because more companies are continuing to allow remote work, a person has career growth and promotion available to them that might not have existed before.
Laura Marzi: Got it. Dr. Crawford, I wonder what your thoughts are on this topic and what your thinking is around the psychiatric effects of why the mind and body react, maybe to the uncertainty and the roller coaster nature of the pandemic.
Dr. Christine Crawford: Yeah. Adele had mentioned a number of different things that could create a tremendous amount of stress for people during this pandemic and having uncertainty linger over your head, day in and day out is exhausting. It is overwhelming. And I think what we saw during this pandemic is that people were experiencing more and more anxiety because they had difficulty tolerating with the unclear future that was ahead of them. And when people are experiencing ongoing uncertainty, when they're unable to predict what is going to happen to them in the future, they start worrying a lot. They start to develop fears about the unknown. What if this happens, what if this were to happen? And having all of these worried thoughts can make it hard to focus on what you need to do each and every day. And it may make it difficult to function to go to work, to maintain meaningful relationships with other people, and having all of these worried thoughts, being constantly stressed, it wears away at your body.
So, people may have problems with muscle tension, difficulty with sleep. And so having all of those physical experiences, in addition to all of the worried thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, it would make it incredibly hard for people to feel fulfilled at work and feeling a lack of purpose, feeling as though you're just languishing away, not being all that productive, that certainly can lead to burn out. So, all of this uncertainty really does play a role, not only on how we think, but also how we feel. And to go through this roller coaster of the pandemic, it can be, it has been quite challenging for a lot of people to deal with that.
Laura Marzi: Wow, yeah, when you put it in those terms, that makes complete sense. Adele, what do you seeing in terms of the signs of long-term effects of burnout on a workforce?
Adele Spallone: Yeah, I think Dr. Crawford did a great job at highlighting, I think some of those signs, but to reiterate, a person really feels exhausted. They have trouble socializing, sleep becomes a problem. They become more irritable and just simply having difficulty carrying out everyday tasks. So, in some situations the person starts to dislike their job. They're feeling less capable at work. Maybe they start showing signs of trouble focusing and concentrating, difficulty collaborating, and missing deadlines, and meetings or quotas. And over a long period of time, if we don't attend to burnout, it can absolutely lead to unexpected or more frequent absences from work. We also can develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. And we saw this during the pandemic. There's been an increase in substance misuse, as well as overeating. And in some situations, it can definitely lead to injury or illness. We know mental health is tied to employee productivity, so addressing burnout becomes critical for employers.
And in my field, we've seen that untreated mental health conditions are among the top five reasons for United States workers to file a short-term disability claim. And that's when you exclude pregnancy. And then the more common mental health claims we see filed are for mood disorders like depression, or we also see anxiety and adjustment disorders.
Laura Marzi: That makes sense. I wanted to look at in another statistic from the Future of Benefit survey. So, according to the research, it sounds like the burnout rate is higher among women and some 68% of women versus 52% of men say that they're experiencing burnout at work. Dr. Crawford, let's think for a minute about the unique hardship that women have and continue to experience related to how they're feeling burned out and how that kind of relays to their work and their productivity?
Dr. Christine Crawford: Laura, I imagine that there are a number of women who are listening to this podcast who've probably nodded, while you said that the burnout rate is higher among women, because I couldn't agree with you anymore. And just meeting with parents, meeting with mothers, meeting with other folks who have been just so challenged by all of the complexities of working from home, caring for children, it is a lot. And having to make that quick pivot at the beginning stages of the pandemic, to working from home, to having your kids not in a school environment, it was a lot. And what we do know for women is that there are a lot of roles and responsibilities that they take on when it comes to the home life. They're often the ones who are providing most of the childcare. They are the ones who might be providing the majority of the emotional support to their children. They're the ones who are keeping things going and moving in the house.
And when you're in that position, in which you feel as though you have to be a rock for other people within your home, for your children who are anxious, who are scared about what the future holds, and you have to be strong for them and to support them. And that can be hard if you're also scared and worry too, to put up a brave face for your children.
And then also there's the financial implications of all of this. Unfortunately, women don't make as much money as men do. And there's the added burden and worry about finances, if they have to reduce the amount of time that they're able to go into work because they're having to care for their children. And then also women are in this role in which they are taking care of other family members, elderly parents.
And so being asked to be everything to everyone all the time is quite taxing and exhausting. And, it's kind of like thinking about filling up everyone else's cup before filling your own. And that's something that happens for women time and time again. And the reason why I say this is because I experienced this myself during the course of the pandemic too, I was just so busy making sure that everyone else was doing fine, that everyone else was keeping their heads above water. And I was giving away all of this energy to everyone around me and trying to keep everyone fulfilled and filled up. But I wasn't filling up my own cup. There wasn't anything that was replenishing me and not being able to engage in self care, not being able to take the time that you need to recharge your batteries. It's another thing that could significantly lead to burnout as well.
Laura Marzi: I think to your point earlier, a lot of women hear you on those comments certainly really pervasive. I think about my own circle of people that I spend time with, and those are a lot of the comments that they make and it makes sense, and it's definitely a reality. Putting it into the practice that you manage, Adele, are you seeing any interesting trends from women that have filed disability claims?
Adele Spallone: We are actually, and to Dr. Crawford's point, I think what happens, especially a woman who's a mother, grappling with the double shift of household responsibilities and more difficult remote work experience, when they're not taking care of themselves, they get to a point where they're so stressed out, so anxious or even depressed, and they do file disability claims. And some have been interesting, we weren't expecting, like domestic violence claims being one of them. So, we know domestic violence has been a considerable issue imposed by the pandemic. The home confinement that has led to the constant contact between household members, the increased stress because of all the reasons we've been talking about and in some case resulting in increased violence. So that was one that we weren't expecting to see, but we are seeing an increase.
Also, anxiety claims for some women that are working in jobs where they have, they're experiencing significant staffing shortages, or increased workloads, depression from women over 60 that we're seeing because of the loss of family members to COVID and the grief that they're dealing with. And then I think the more common ones that we were expecting financial distress due to COVID, due to either a spouse or significant other not able to work, and then child care issues. This constant unknown with kids coming in and out of school or mothers with newborns who have a fear of COVID, and putting their children in day care.
Laura Marzi: Thank you both so much for this a very informative discussion. We know burnout from the pandemic is real. You have really helped us understand the risks for our home life and in the workplace. We will continue the discussion with Dr. Crawford and Adele Spallone in an upcoming Line on Leave podcast when we’ll look at employer strategies that can best support employees challenged by the pandemic and in some cases, so much more.
Thank you to all of our listeners. And if you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast. Please share it with your colleagues. And as always, you'll find it at If you'd like more mental health resources, I also invite you to visit our partner NAMI and that's spelled N-A-M-I .org. Until next time, please be well and stay safe everyone. Thank you for listening.
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This informational material is subject to change as The Hartford continues to receive guidance from states and municipalities. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to an employer’s business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute The Hartford’s undertaking on a company’s behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that an employer’s business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Employers seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors; and employees should continue to consult their employers’ Human Resources or other employment benefits department for guidance on the application of any law, rule, or regulation.
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