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Rates of anxiety and depression skyrocket during COVID-19: RPT

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Bill Rodgers, Labor Economist and Rutgers University Professor, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the impact of COIVD-19 on workers’ mental health.

Video Transcript

KRISTEN MYERS: Welcome back. It is Mental Health Awareness Month and we want to discuss the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental state of American workers. We're joined now by Bill Rodgers, labor economist and a professor at Rutgers University. So professor, we were recently chatting with the CEO of BetterUp, who said that American workers were, and I'm going to quote him here, he said that they were "languishing," which he described as a general blah feeling. I'm curious to know, is that it? Or is something more serious happening here where American workers aren't just feeling blah, but are actually feeling feelings of clinical anxiety, of depression and other mental health issues?

BILL RODGERS: Thank you for having me to talk about this really important, important issue. My co-authors, we looked at the US Census' is Pulse Data or Pulse Survey, and prior to the pandemic, roughly about 6% to 7% of the population said that they were, had anxiety or they self-employed as being depressed. But when you look at the Pulse Data truly in the midst of the pandemic, the rates, self-reported rates have jumped to about 25% to 30%.

I mean, the good news is, since the $1.9 million has been starting to get out into the economy and I think people also sending messages that help is on the way with the recovery and with continued support, some of those rates have fallen. But they're still in excess of 20%. And I have some colleagues who think since these are self-reported, these actually could be even lower. So this is not about lazy Americans or Americans being blase. I mean, this is for most Americans, this is probably the toughest one year that many have had in their whole lifetime.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: I think you are absolutely right, Professor Rodgers, and I know that your survey also found that look, I don't think anxiety and depression are discriminatory. I think they're equal opportunity issues. But by and large, you're seeing this impact more severely low income communities, Black and Brown communities, and younger people. Were you able to glean anything from that? Why do we think that's happening?

BILL RODGERS: Yeah. Well, prior to the pandemic, people of color, women, those who face pay differentials, pay disadvantages, such as women earning, continuing to earn 20%, 25% less than men, or that Blacks, Latinos earn substantially less than their white counterparts, that creates economic stress. That creates challenges. How am I going to meet my monthly expenses? How am I going to meet my child care bills?

And when you're chronically going from week to week, month to month having to really figure that out, how to juggle, how to prioritize, that creates, that creates anxieties, that creates stress. And some of my colleagues, Sandy Darity at UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, he's been studying this for a long time about you see particularly Blacks and other minorities and particularly the intersect that with income, they've always been facing stress. And so this as you said, this pandemic was equal opportunity stress creator. It moved up the income scale out to the suburbs, up the educational ladder too. But the good news, as I said, we are starting to see some improvement.

KRISTEN MYERS: All right, so professor, for those who do have jobs, for those employers that are out there that recognize that burnout, depression, anxiety, none of this is good for worker productivity. What can they do? Is it a matter of starting to increase some of those salaries so that people feel a little bit more appreciated financially for the work that they're putting in? Is it kind of company happy hours? What can be done on an employer level to fix some of this?

BILL RODGERS: No, that's a great question. I have been working with colleague, Jim Cisneros, about reentry or return to office work. And number one, as you said, yeah, increasing wages. And I think that will also address some of the concerns that people don't want to go back, that they're wanting to use their unemployment insurance checks, they prefer using those to meet their bills. But if there really is truly a worker shortage, let's see people increase wages, let's how the federal minimum wage increase of $50 bucks an hour.

But then the human resource people and the talent management people are going to also have to do some, if I might say, some reboarding. That many people have been out of work or been out of the office for months and months, and even in those short periods of time, people's soft skills will have deteriorated or sort of fallen off. And so there will have to be a greater amount of compassion and understanding with regards to bringing people back and showing sensitivity.

Because we still aren't out of the woods yet, fully out of the woods yet. I mean, many moms and dads are facing challenges and the anxiety created around child care. Many schools have reopened, but they're not open full-time. And so they're still trying to juggle these responsibilities, it's still anxiety-creating. So one, improve compensation and wages and confidence too. But then also, probably doing some onboarding types of activities and letting people grieve and letting people talk about how their last year has been.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Professor, what about on a federal level from the Biden administration? What are some practical things you'd like to see happen there? Because when you look at the federal relief and the recovery efforts that have been put forth so far, not a lot of it is including things like mental health and help for depression and anxiety.

BILL RODGERS: Exactly, exactly. The American Recovery Plan had some items in it, but it was more about making health insurance more affordable, because people's incomes were getting or had gotten whacked or they lost their jobs. But in the report, we talk about three or four things. One is, we need to continue to have improved education around mental health. It's been a positive thing. When we're seeing Michael Phelps and other celebrities talking about their mental health challenges, because that helps to remove the still existing stigma associated with mental health.

And that relates to then also having, enforcing mental, what are called mental health parity laws. And that is basically treating mental health benefits the same as other regular medical care benefits. And then a third thing to do is really invest in incentives that will also diversify the workforce of mental health employees, that there is a relationship, that others have found that people feel more comfortable, and particularly in these sensitive areas, possibly talking with those who look like them, more like them.

And then I think the other piece is, in light of what's happened with George Floyd and the shining the light on structural racism, that has to be addressed as we continue to move forward. So there's no, unfortunately, there's no silver bullet, but we all have to be in this together, because that's what's happened over the last year. We've been in this together and we need to support one another.

KRISTEN MYERS: No silver bullet, but a nice highlight to all the employers that might be watching. Paying your employees a little bit more can go a long way to help them out. Bill Rodgers, labor economist, Rutgers University professor. Thanks so much for joining us.