by David Epstein CWP, SHRM-SCP

It is important to point out that prior to the pandemic, there were already existing gaps in wellness, mental health, and support systems for employees in all organizations, and disparate access and outcomes for marginalized communities in society at large. So, it is not surprising that organizations had gaps prior to and during the pandemic as organizations reflect society. The pandemic simply illuminated existing gaps and created new ones. One group of professionals who were severely impacted was healthcare professionals.

Prior to the pandemic, burnout had already reached alarmingly high levels among United States healthcare workers, with over one-half of physicians and one-third of nurses experiencing symptoms, according to a National Center for Biotechnology in an NIH study in 2018.

By 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as a “syndrome” that is caused by “chronic workplace stress.” While burnout is specifically described as an “occupational phenomenon,” it can lead to serious physical and mental health concerns.

Prior to COVID-19, there were indications of an epidemic of mental health issues before the pandemic:

  • About one-fifth of Americans aged 18 to 54 suffered from some form of anxiety. And suicide loomed as the second leading cause of death in the US and the tenth leading cause of death around the world.
  • One-third of adults aged 18 to 25 had a diagnosable mental illness. 10% had been classified with a serious mental illness such as clinical depression or severe anxiety disorder.
  • Almost one-half of the LGBTQIA+ community suffered from some form of mental illness.
  • Transgender adults were 12x more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.

As a result of the pandemic, according to studies by Johns Hopkins and Keiser Health, to name a few found:

  • Anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic.
  • Over 40% of all American adults reported having symptoms of anxiety and/or depression during this time.
  • In 2020, 26.3 million people received mental health services virtually or online.
  • 23% of people aged 18 to 25 said that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental wellbeing.
  • 35% of people making $40k or less reported a significant negative impact on their mental health compared to only 17% of people who make over $90k a year. This was reflective of a gap for essential workers who were not able to work remotely.
  • During the pandemic, there was a 13% increase in substance abuse problems.
  • According to a 2021 report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “persistent systemic social inequities and discrimination” worsen stress and associated mental health concerns for people of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color in America. Racial and ethnic disparities in health care are known factors contributing to the higher morbidity and mortality among people of color, as compared to white Americans. Housing insecurity, job loss, and essential work vs. being able to work remotely were among many disparities for BIPOC communities.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed more than 500 working Americans in 2021 as the pandemic entered its second year. These employees shared insights about their mental health and the workplace. Overall, they felt worn down. Sixty percent of respondents said they were exhausted when leaving work. Forty percent said they were burned out from work. And 30% said their workplace’s culture was making them irritable at home.

Indeed, the job site conducted a survey of 1,500 U.S. workers to determine the level of burnout exhibited by different groups of people. The subjects were picked from various age groups, experience levels, and industry sectors. The study compared current findings against a prior pre-pandemic study in January 2020.

Some of the highlights of this survey indicated:

  • Burnout is on the rise. Over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout, up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey.
  • Fifty-three percent of Millennials were already burned-out pre- pandemic, and they continued to be the most affected population, with 59% experiencing it today. However, Gen-Z is now right on their heels, as 58% report burnout—up from 47% who said the same in 2020.
  • Baby Boomers show a 7% increase in burnout from pre-pandemic levels (24%) to today (31%). And at 54%, more than half of Gen-Xers are currently burned out—a 14% jump from the 40% who felt this way last year.
  • Eighty percent of respondents said COVID has impacted workplace burnout—though, how and to what extent varied. A significant majority say burnout has worsened.

All of these factors and statistics make it critical for organizations to try to fill gaps in mental and emotional care for their employees. They also must reassess what mental health and wellness programs they had in the workplace pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and post-pandemic – and identify and address the gaps.


David G. Epstein, SHRM-SCP, CWP, CDP, is the Director of Human Resources & Talent Strategy for Mobilization for Justice, Inc., in New York City. He is a Certified Wellness Practitioner, a Certified Diversity Professional, and a Senior Certified HR Professional. He is a Life and Career Coach and professional member of the American Counseling Association.