The State of Our Work

the-state-of-our-mental-health-careers

In early March, word started buzzing across Cambridge: things were about to change. It was more than two months after the novel coronavirus had begun to spread through Asia, and mere weeks after the first community transmission in the U.S. For Yiran He and her peers, graduating seniors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was the end of an era — and the end of certainty about what was to come next.

First, prospective student visits were cancelled. Then, on March 10, MIT’s administration announced that the university, and its student dorms, would be closed for the duration of the crisis. Students with safe homes to return to started packing their bags; others, who relied on the university for food and shelter, leaned on community support. Yiran He attended a senior gathering at her department, had one last dinner out with friends, and then — like thousands of other students across the country — headed home.

“My summer was going to be so good!” He told me. She was planning to visit family in China, travel around Asia, and then, hopefully, start work in consulting in the fall. Before the virus, it seemed a job offer was in the works. But as the social and economic calamity of the crisis swept the United States, the offer — like so many plans of the thousands of college students graduating now — evaporated. “You just could not have seen this coming,” she said.

Work, Interrupted

With the exception of epidemiologists and some public health officials, none of us could have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic. But months into the disease’s U.S. spread, American workers — in hospitals, on oil fields, and at universities — are just beginning to grapple with its effects.

Due to mass business shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, and delays in promised federal relief, the pandemic has led to the worst unemployment rates in a century. In February 2020, 3.5 percent of U.S. workers looking for jobs were unable to find them. By April, that figure had skyrocketed to 14.7 percent of workers — likely an undercount, considering the many Americans who have recently lost jobs but, because of the pandemic’s decimation of the economy and job prospects, aren’t actively seeking new employment. There simply are not jobs to look for.

Those still working are split into a few groups. People who can work from home are able to weather the storm in relative safety, but must now grapple with the dual burden of domestic and paid work, as well as the constant pressure to be productive. Workers who still have daily commutes — many of them underpaid grocery, agricultural, and warehouse workers — may continue bringing in a paycheck, but risk of becoming seriously ill. Meanwhile, frontline medical workers grapple with continued shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the long-term effects of fighting a traumatic battle often without adequate employer support.

“There are so many uncertainties right now,” says Talkspace therapist Dr. Rachel O’Neill. “What does a job search look like? Does my career even look like what I for envisioned it?” For a diversity of workers across the United States, these uncertainties are the one unifier.

On The Front Line, Without Reinforcements

For front-line medical workers, going to work every day can be literally life and death. Among her patients who are front-line workers, there is fear and uncertainty, “but also a sense of anger and resentment,” said O’Neill. As protestors in several states urge governments to reopen businesses, a plurality of medical workers feel left behind.

Many New York City nurses share that frustration. They strive to protect patients and earn a paycheck, all the while fearing that, due to shortages of PPE, they, too, will succumb to the virus. According to the CDC, COVID-19 sickened over 9,000 healthcare workers by mid-April.

“There’s no way you’re not getting it if you are working in the emergency room with the bare minimum protection,” Benny Mathew, a nurse at New York City’s Montefiore Medical Center who has tested positive for COVID-19, told NPR in early May. Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, echoed that sentiment. “Nurses are not afraid to care for our patients if we have the right protections,” she told NPR. “But we’re not martyrs sacrificing our lives because our government and our employers didn’t do their jobs.” Other healthcare professionals have reported feeling like “cannon fodder” or “sheep sent to slaughter.”

The psychological effects of the pandemic on healthcare workers are akin to the trauma of war. A few months after the peak, half of Chinese doctors reported symptoms of depression, 45 percent experienced anxiety, 34 percent suffered from insomnia, and a full 71.5 percent were experiencing some form of psychological distress.

Unemployed in the Heartland

Far from the empty streets and crowded hospitals of the epicenter in New York City, workers in rural America are nevertheless feeling the impact of COVID-19. Many rural industries in the Midwest, like meat processing, have become hotspots for the virus, as largely immigrant, low wage workers are forced to continue operations side by side, even as more than a thousand workers fall sick.

In North Dakota, which has seen low levels of coronavirus infection, workers in the oil industry fear layoffs. “A lot of employment is tied to oil production and that is in a real downturn right now,” said Cindy Juntunen, a vocational psychologist at the University of North Dakota, who founded a training institute for rural mental health.

The jobs outlook was largely good, though fundamentally unequal, in North Dakota before the pandemic. Due to the legacy of Euro-American colonialism, Native American communities have historically suffered from chronic unemployment. Now, however, the state’s oil fields are seeing a slowdown that will more equally impact the well-being of a broad swathe of workers.

People with mental illness experience particularly high rates of unemployment, partly due to lack of accessible, supportive care. As of 2014, around 80 percent of individuals receiving public mental health services of some kind were unemployed. With the economic and health effects of the coronavirus concentrated among those already most vulnerable, and expanded unemployment benefits proving perilously hard to access, those strains on the mentally ill are sure to intensify.

At the same time, even workers who don’t have a preexisting mental illness experience increased distress as a result of long-term joblessness. In a work- and production-oriented society like ours, where employment accounts for basic material necessities as well as a daily experience of community and purpose — not to mention as a primary means of accessing health insurance — the powerlessness of not being able to find a needed job can be a trigger for depression. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, while 11.1 percent of people who are unemployed for two weeks are in treatment for depression, after six months that number leaps to a whopping 19 percent.

The fallout can be especially rough in communities that lack adequate access to mental health care. “It’s not uncommon in North Dakota for people to have to drive more than an hour to get to a doctor,” said Juntunen. “There are folks who would have to give up a whole day’s work to get to a counselor.” Juntunen anticipates the need for more mental health resources for these isolated communities in light of the increased social and economic strain of COVID-19.

You Don’t Have to Write King Lear

Meanwhile, in homes across the United States, remote workers are fighting their own battle: how productive must we be during a pandemic?

“I hear from a lot of folks that they’re struggling to focus,” said O’Neill. “There’s a lot of: ‘I need to be doing more. I need to be focusing through this time.’” But with many at-home workers simultaneously caring for children and elders, full concentration is hard to come by. The blurring of boundaries between home and office life can worsen these impacts — as can the constant and consistent message that we should be extra productive while working from home. As the meme suggests, if Shakepeare wrote King Lear during quarantine from the plague; surely, we too could make something great.

O’Neill, for one, isn’t buying it. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Who cares if that happens? That’s not the barometer to successfully get through a pandemic,” she said. Perhaps just surviving such a catastrophe should count as a win.

So much of our working lives — from the state of the job market to whether employers respect our rights — feel outside of our individual control (though the uptick in workers’ strikes shows the efficacy of collective organizing). But we can control how much internal pressure we put on ourselves, by valuing our contribution and that of others for things beyond paid work. “You don’t need to produce something of economic value to make meaning,” said O’Neill.

For Yiran He, the soon-to-be MIT graduate, there is an upside to this unexpected end to her senior year. She had intended to spend the summer with family in China; now, she’s spending time with family right in her suburban backyard. The family has made bread, gone for walks around the block, and watched neighborhood songbirds congregate at their bird feeder. She has also managed to find a summer internship doing remote data analysis, so she’s soon slated to join the ranks of the work-from-home.

Through these disruptions to her dreams for her career, He has found creative ways to stay connected to friends, bond with family, and take care of herself. “Looking on the bright side of things, it helps me build better habits,” she said. “Thank you, Mom!”


From the Desk of Dr. Rachel O’Neill, LPCC-S

“For many, even something as simple as finding space to work became a large consideration, and for others, the ability to balance work and home when there is no geographic distance between the two”
  • How do you feel about your current work situation?
  • In the current state of your career, what do you have control over?
  • What boundaries can you set between work and home?
  • When and how will you take “downtime” or time to reflect during the work week?
  • What are you grateful for in terms of your career at this unique moment in time?
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