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Mental Health Implications for Essential Employees & Their Families During COVID-19

Essential employees are the heroes who are keeping us safe and fed during this unprecedented time of challenge. Without the healthcare workers, first responders, pharmacists, grocery store workers, truck drivers and delivery personnel and more, our communities would come to a grinding halt. We must honor and appreciate their service and recognize how their work is impacting their lives as well as the lives of their loved ones.

Let’s consider the the potential stressors for essential employees and their families during this difficult time.

Stressors for essential employees:
*Fear of contracting the virus
*Fear of infecting loved ones (if living together)
*Isolation & loss (if living separate from family)
*Chronic trauma
*Feelings of anxiety and overwhelm
*Pressure and hyper-responsibility
*Dealing with stigma (people fearing contracting the virus from them, social judgement because of putting your family at risk by doing your job)
*Fears of unknown and uncertainty of the future
*Feelings of guilt or resentment

Stressors for family members of essential employees: 

*Fear and concern for health and safety of the essential employee, themselves, and other family
*Adjustments to working from home (if they also work)
*New demands with parenting or homeschooling
*Challenges managing uncertainty and change
*Resentment, anger or guilt

Now, let’s take a look at the mental health implications for essential workers and their families.

Essential employees and their family members are more likely than the general population to experience:

  • Acute Stress Disorder: distress, irritability, difficulty concentrating, avoidance behaviors, tension, feelings of numbness, etc.
  • Vicarious traumatization: irritability, grief, sadness and mood swings that are the result of empathic connection to those who have experienced a trauma.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): flashbacks, nightmares, startle response, hyper-arousal, negative thinking, memory problems, feelings of guilt or shame, dissociation, etc.
  • Anxiety: worry, nervousness, panic, symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), etc.
  • Depression: low mood, apathy, irritability, hopelessness, changes in sleep or appetite, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, etc.
  • Insomnia: sleep disturbance or inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Insomnia exacerbates mental health challenges.
  • Substance use/abuse: in attempt to self-medicate symptoms
  • Adjustment disorders: symptoms of mild to moderate depression or anxiety in response to changes in work, routine, social support, etc.
  • Relationship conflict: arguments with loved ones because of the unique stressors of essential workers and their families.
  • Grief and loss: feelings of sadness and loss related to sickness, death, cancelled events or plans, decrease in social support, changes in routine, etc.

According to the the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “frontline healthcare workers directly engaged in treating patients with COVID-19 are three times as likely to suffer insomnia and more than 50% more likely to suffer depression or anxiety.”

We must promote mental health awareness for essential workers and their families. The following are symptoms of mental health issues provided by the National Alliance for Mental Illness for early detection of a mental illness:
  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating/learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding/relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Difficulty perceiving reality
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality
    (lack of insight)
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress

We must remove the shame and stigma associated with mental health issues and promote access to care. Most insurance companies are covering tele therapy and some like Aetna have waved out-of-pocket Telehealth expenses. Take care of your mental health and seek support today. If you are concerned about a loved one, act swiftly and recommend counseling. For tips on how to recommend therapy to somebody, click here.

Seek the support you need and deserve today.

Mental Health Resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness Information & Resource Guide with FAQ’s
CDC Coronavirus Stress & Coping Resources
Mental Health America: COVID-19 Information & Resources

United Healthcare has launched a free (to anyone) 24/7 support line staffed by mental health experts: Call 866-342-6292

Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor

PsychologyToday’s Find-A-Therapist Directory


Mental Health Implications for Essential Employees & Their Families During COVID-19

Joyce Marter, LCPC

Joyce Marter, LCPC is the Founder of Urban Balance and public speaker. You may find her at her personal website here, or you may follow her on Twitter.

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APA Reference
Marter, J. (2020). Mental Health Implications for Essential Employees & Their Families During COVID-19. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Apr 2020
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