Research from Total Brain shows how coronavirus-fueled worry is interfering with workplace productivity. The COVID-19 anxiety is taking a toll on all Americans.
With the coronavirus pandemic affecting the health and livelihoods of millions around the globe, people from all walks of life are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.
A March 2020 survey of 500 U.S. workers conducted by the mental wellness platform Total Brain found that 58 percent of employees are feeling anxious about COVID-19, and 35 percent say that anxiety stemming from the outbreak has disrupted their workplace productivity.
The pandemic has caused widespread uncertainty, and in a press release, Evian Gordon, MD, PhD, the cofounder and chief medical officer of Total Brain, said that “uncertainty itself is one of the fearful and anxiety-provoking situations. Lack of control triggers the brain’s fear networks and hijacks flexible decision-making.”
A Closer Look at the Mental Health Impact of the Outbreak
In addition to its survey gauging worker anxiety, Total Brain recently took an in-depth look at how the coronavirus outbreak may be influencing various aspects of mental well-being among those included in its database of more than 800,000 users.
Through a series of questions, exercises, and tasks, the Total Brain app provides individuals with a neuroscience-based assessment of how they’re doing mentally and emotionally. Based on responses from 500 to 1,000 Total Brain app users per week over a period from early February to mid-March, the research suggested that increased isolation due to work-at-home policies and widespread quarantines have been increasing depression and social anxiety.
The report notes that app users revealed a steady decline in their ability to control stress, anxiety, and depressive moods. The analysis indicates that this may lead to a reduction in worker flexibility and willingness to collaborate and communicate.
“For companies, this creates a lot of efficiency and productivity issues,” says Louis Gagnon, the CEO of Total Brain.
The Total Brain study also looked at negativity bias, a term the research group Nielsen Norman says denotes a tendency to give more weight to negative experiences.
In just over a month’s time ending March 23, app users registered a significant increase in negativity bias as well as a drop in emotional awareness.
“As people start to perceive things more negatively, they struggle in relationships,” says Gagnon. “These factors impact a person’s ability to communicate and collaborate.”
Results also indicate that individuals have been less focused, less able to plan, and less resilient.
Meanwhile, measures of PTSD and addiction have climbed.
Even though people have been isolating more, social connectivity itself has shown a slight upward trend.
“Social connectivity is an interesting one because it has increased, although not dramatically,” says Gagnon. “Our hypothesis there is that we all have a lot more time on our hands even if we’re socially isolating. The isolation is enabling us to reconnect with people we haven’t had time for before. So that has started to trend up a little bit.”
Results Back Up Other Mental Health Assessments
These new findings from Total Brain fall in line with other recent investigations. Research published in the Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association and by the Kaiser Family Foundation all suggest that the pandemic is taking a major toll on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being.
Plotnick remarks that more people than average are coming to the MHA website for help. In March and April, the number of anxiety self-screenings has been about 22 percent above average, while depression self-screenings have risen about 18 percent, according to Plotnick. The numbers of screenings have been particularly high among those ages 11 to 17, and those with chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, COPD, and cancer.
When visitors to the MHA website are asked about the main things contributing to their mental health problems right now, the top answers have been loneliness and isolation (58 percent) and COVID-19 (48 percent), says Plotnick.
Getting the Tools and Resources to Help
MHA provides a variety of proven, time-tested screenings to help individuals gauge how they are doing, including the Total Brain app. The organization also gives guidance on how to find mental health professionals and treatments.
“We encourage people to reach out for help and know that support is still available virtually through telehealth, even though everyone is isolated,” says Plotnick.
For those wanting to get their own self-assessment now, Total Brain is offering free three-month access to its mental health and wellness app. The trial gives consumers a chance to explore a platform that is widely used by corporations to improve mental fitness and productivity. The app is also used by addiction and behavioral health clinics and organizations such as AARP.
“The Total Brain app is meant to provide concrete tools to keep you mentally healthy, focused, and productive through these times,” said Gordon in a statement. “While you can’t always control the source of the threat, you can control your response to it.”
Through the Total Brain app, individuals can try these exercises to reduce fear and negativity and increase calmness, flexibility, and positivity during these trying times.
- Boost your heart rate variability (HRV). Slow your breathing to six breaths a minute for three minutes to increase your heart rate variability. This is intended to induce calm and flexible decision-making by putting a brake on your fight-or-flight stress system.
- Meditate. When the brain is in a fear state, it switches to self-defense and protectiveness. Meditation can help switch off a cluttered mind, counter a negative fear attitude, and induce calm.
- Try positive affirmations and visualizations. Positivity is contagious. Saying positive statements, visualizing positive outcomes, and choosing positive cues in digital training tools will help nudge you toward a positive brain state.
- Use digital tools to shape a more positive attitude. Engage in online tasks and exercises that will enable you to make more-effective choices, rather than those driven by fear. For example, an activity on the Total Brain app called Bubbletopia asks users to orient their attention to positive-emotion words; they rapidly select those words to move to higher levels. The activity aims to help improve stress, anxiety, and depressed mood control, as well as resilience.
- Seek out actions that give you joy. Pursue activities that give you a lift, and connect with people who matter to you. These actions can help boost hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin that can improve overall mood and make you feel happier.
By taking some simple actions to improve mental outlook (such as ones detailed on the Total Brain app and by organizations such as Mental Health America), people may be better equipped to cope during these trying times and to face uncertainties in the future.
“Remember, it hasn’t always been this hard, and it won’t always be,” says Plotnick. “Let’s think about what we can do now to get through where we are today, and then plan ahead for when times aren’t this difficult.”