While there has been some research exploring the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic broadly, limited research has specifically explored the effects of returning to a physical workplace during the COVID pandemic. In early 2020, a group of researchers in China asked approximately 1300 employees who had permission to return to a physical workplace to complete depression, anxiety and PTSD assessments. Some participants had been working in the workplace for weeks, some had just returned, and some had not yet begun working in the workplace, but were planning to begin.
Across the entire sample, researchers were surprised to find that while PTSD rates were higher than rates pre-COVID, anxiety and depression rates reflected rates found in the general population prior to COVID. However, depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms varied between subgroups significantly, indicating some populations may be at increased risk for mental health challenges upon returning to work.
Findings indicate the following:
- Divorced/widowed/separated and married participants reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD symptoms than single participants.
- Participants who characterized their physical health as “normal” or “poor” reported a higher number of PTSD symptoms than those who characterized their health as “good”.
- Participants who had not returned to work yet, or had been back in the workplace for less than 7 days reported a significantly higher number of PTSD symptoms than participants who had been working in the workplace for 15+ days.
- Participants who had concerns about workplace hygiene also reported a significantly higher number of PTSD symptoms than participants who were confident in their workplace hygiene.
This study was conducted in China before effective vaccines were available, so the severity of the outbreak for the region may be higher than some parts of the US, and anxiety may be reduced for individuals who have access to the vaccine. However, for many non-healthcare workers under the age of 65, it may be months before they are fully vaccinated, indicating it may be helpful to consider the effects of returning to work when evaluating their mental health.
Tan, W., Hao, F., McIntyre, R. S., Jiang, L., Jiang, X., Zhang, L., Zhao, X., Zou, Y., Hu, Y., Luo, X., Zhang, Z., Lai, A., Ho, R., Tran, B., Ho, C., & Tam, W. (2020). Is returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic stressful? A study on immediate mental health status and psychoneuroimmunity prevention measures of Chinese workforce. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 87, 84–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2020.04.055
Maria Stacy, MA
WKPIC Doctoral Intern