COVID Research: A Look at the Science

I recently heard about some very sobering statistics on the emotional toll of COVID. I was shocked at the statistics and realize I should share these with you.

As leaders we need to know that many of the people working in our organizations are experiencing clinical levels of stress in at least one area of mental health (anxiety, depression, traumatic stress, or addiction). The results are most alarming for young adults and unpaid caregivers.

Fortunately, I didn’t stop at the depressing news
I also scoured what the research says on the best ways to cope and help others. We can make a significant difference to those around us.

First the news, then how to help.

In a nutshell:
41% of people in the US, and probably elsewhere, are experiencing very severe levels of distress, at least one clinical level symptom of adverse mental/behavioral experience.

In a CDC survey of about 5,400 adults in the US:

  • 75% of those who are 18 – 24 years old have at least one area of clinical level of distress
  • 66% of those who are unpaid caregivers of an adult report a diagnosable level of distress

Risk goes down with level of education and financial stability.

There are details below as well and the survey results.

Think about these statistics not only for yourself or those you care about, but remember this when you’re giving a performance review, running a team meeting or feeling annoyed that someone is thin-skinned. While many of us are fine, many of us are in significant distress.

The CDC study is not talking about just feeling lousy, restless, impatient, bored, tired, lonely or isolated. It’s more serious – it’s reporting at least one clinical level mental/behavioral adverse symptom of depression, anxiety, traumatic stress or addiction.

Rates by diagnosis:

  • Depression & Anxiety: 31% of the population is experiencing significant symptom of depression
  • To put this in perspective, this is three times the number from 2019
  • Traumatic level of distress is reported by 26% of the population
  • Increased substance abuse is reported by 13% and
  • Serious consideration of suicide in the last 30 days is reported by 11% of the respondents.

I found it shocking that 75% of those between 18 – 24 are reporting significant levels of distress at a clinical level.
For those of us with children and younger employees in this age bracket, don’t panic but be alert. Knowing that the stakes are high for this group, inspire yourself to continue to be very supportive of younger adults. Their lives are upended, and they don’t have the kind of wear and tear and survival experience of those who are older and have stood the test of time.

Other related data:

  • Many of us are 45 – 64 and while our numbers are lower, 30% of us still report having at least one clinical level symptom.
  • While it seems counterintuitive to me, the risk goes down to 15% if you’re 65 or older.
  • Oddly enough, levels of distress aren’t worse if you know someone who has died.
  • Men and women are about equal.

Serious thoughts of suicide in the last 30 days:

  • 10% of the people surveyed reported having seriously thought of suicide in the past month.
  • 31% of unpaid caregivers of adults
  • 25% of those in the 18 – 24 age group
  • 22% of essential workers.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around these numbers. Nearly 1/3 of unpaid caregivers? 1/4 of young adults? This is so sobering. What can we do? Remember you won’t necessarily see how distressed they are – so simply be very empathic and supportive to young adults and those you know who are not only working but also caring for others, often in addition to their children. Don’t forget to be empathic to yourself. The drain is overwhelming, and we all need to take care of ourselves.

NOTE on the rates of those considering suicide:
Be alert but don’t panic. Here are three important things to know:

  1. The number of people who actually kill themselves is much lower than you might think with the 10% giving it serious consideration. It’s about 14.2 per 100,000.
  2. There is a significant difference between having suicidal thoughts and actually making an attempt or succeeding. If someone is suicidal, one question to calmly ask is: Do you have a plan? If the answer is yes, and they can spell it out, do not wait. Seek professional help immediately.
  3. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone. Please reach out, or at least respond when people reach out to you.

Even without a plan, considering suicide is a powerful surfacing of feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or despairing. And sometimes it stems from being angry, frustrated and seeing no end in sight.

If someone close to you is feeling suicidal, the level of stress is extreme. Don’t do it alone. Get support. And, like in the plane, put on your own oxygen mask first.

We need to take care of one another.

How to help:
If you are part of the group that is feeling okay, here is what the research suggests can help those you care for, lead and coach.

First, don’t underestimate what others are experiencing
And don’t imagine they could be fine if they just tried harder. As leaders we tend to be an unusual group, far more resilient than the average bear. Don’t assume others have your strength. Go beyond your own experience. A bit of empathy and creating psychological safety for others goes a long, long way. If you are feeling judgmental (thinking those in distress are weak) you will lower their resilience level and possibly create a downward spiral. Snap out of it. (

Second, social connectedness is key
We do better together. Did you know that under normal times, having one close relationship adds seven years to your life?

If you are a leader you can’t necessarily reach out to everyone, but you can scale a sense of connectedness by the way you frame what is happening to your people. Continue the combination of affirming the seriousness of what we are going through, while at the same time emphasizing that we have the resources to make it and you are willing to support those having a hard time.

Third, there is growth after trauma, and during it as well
This HBR article Growth after Trauma, is an excellent resource on how to process, manage and navigate high levels of distress. This excellent article introduces us to post traumatic growth and has a number of interventions.

Here’s an article that I’ve written on post traumatic growth that has other interventions, resources and a differentiation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from Traumatic Distress.

Fourth: Pulling the gain from the pain
In the trauma literature, what helps you though more than anything is going from the pain to the meaning the painful experience can give you. What is it you can pull from what has happened to you that can give your life more meaning? This is what increases resilience. The question you can ask is: what can I learn from this experience that will make me stronger and make my leadership more powerful?

I had the terrific experience of working with HBS professor Bill George and the Authentic Leadership Institute for 7 years as we rolled out a program for the top 300 at Unilever. Core to the process is understanding your life and crucible experiences, and how they make you stronger as a leader.

Here is another article about how a sense of purpose is an important internal resource.

Fifth: Unlocking your resources identified by positive psychology
Here is an open resource link to an overview I wrote on positive psychology. There is an intro to PP, but a few pages in there’s data on accessing flow states, a section on hope that is really important to know (p229), a list of strengths (p232), and then a comprehensive list of positive psychology interventions. Frankly they can look a bit dippy, but they are evidence based and surprisingly powerful if you can get past the somewhat Pollyanna language. I wrote it a few years ago, but I’m told again and again it’s still one of the best overviews of positive psychology so here it is.

Of all the research I know, CR Snyder’s on “hope psychology” has a key ingredient

Rick’s death still makes me unhappy, and this work is described in that chapter (p229) of the chapter I mentioned above. I’ve also included his classic 2002 paper that sums up his groundbreaking work. Dozens of empirical studies support his work and show how it is a strong predictor of success whether looking at toddlers, the elderly, athletes and leaders.

First what he calls “hope” is really about how to attain and sustain peak performance. There are two primary components, one is obvious, the other less so. One component is having a sense of agency or will power.

This can be built: If someone feels they can’t do something, help them break it down into smaller steps. Ask them to think about when they have succeeded at something similar in the past. Also explore how they can use their strengths in a new way to grapple with the problem they are facing. All these can increase confidence which leads to more motivation which creates will power.

The second component of hope is called “Way power.” This is key. If you really want to achieve something important, and you have the will to do it, you need to find multiple pathways to that goal. If you can find 4-6 ways to move toward the outcome you want, you are far more likely to get there.

The holidays are upon us and for many it is a time of restoration, and for others or deep pain. As you connect with those that matter to you remember, they may be in more pain than meets the eye. Focus on just one thing. Be kind to one another, and to yourself.