Worker well-being on the decline amid pandemic, OptumHealth survey finds

By | April 21, 2020

A new study shows many still employed during the coronavirus pandemic have experienced worsened well-being, including in their mental health, social lives and finances.

Fifty-one percent of the employees who took OptumHealth’s recent survey reported worse mental well-being, while 54% reported worse social well-being. The survey was released last week and included 500 employees from companies in seven different industries ranging from healthcare to hospitality. Forty percent also feel less productive at work, according to the survey, while 27% report declining physical health.

Most of those who experienced declines in their well-being said it was “somewhat worse” since the coronavirus pandemic spread across all 50 states. However, 12% said they suffered from “much worse” mental health, and 16% reported “much worse” social health. Forty percent of employees say they also now feel less productive.

Twelve percent of employees said they were actually “much better/somewhat better” with their mental health, while 14% reported improvement with their social health. The rest reported being “about the same” in those categories — 38% responding as such in the mental health category, 33% in social health.

Most responding employees — 84% — said they have new workplace arrangements, but those changes varied across several industries looked at by Optum. The survey looked at employers in finance, food and hospitality, manufacturing, retail, and categories defined as “government, public service and religion” and “professional, scientific and technical services.”
Workers in food, hospitality and retail reported the most negative impacts felt from COVID-19; 55% of food and hospitality workers said their overall well-being worsened, while 53% of retailers reported the same.

Forty-three percent of all employees in the survey said their employer had their entire staff switch to remote work, while 41% said at least some were now working remotely. Sixteen percent said there was no change at their workplace.

Twenty-six percent of employees reported their finances becoming “somewhat worse,” and 15% said it had become “much worse.”

Fifty-nine percent of employees said their financial well-being either stayed the same or improved with the pandemic, with 12% reporting the latter.

The survey also found that female respondents were more likely to report a negative impact on their mental health — 57% compared to 44% among males. Forty-four percent of women also reported their financial well-being as worse due to COVID-19, compared to 37% among male respondents. Men said multiple dimensions of their well-being worsened, the report said, though the biggest impact was socially — 51% reporting such a decline.


OptumHealth Chief Health Officer Seth Serxner said consumers need more help during this pandemic, as COVID-19 has brought new uncertainty to peoples’ work and home life. He said a lack of social interaction adds to the stress and anxiety people often talk through with friends and coworkers — no longer an option for those following strict social distancing guidelines.

The survey found that employers have been implementing “sweeping changes” to workforce policies and services in response to the virus. Seventy-nine percent of employees reported their companies were restricting non-essential travel, and 78% say they had moved to virtual internal meetings.

Fifty-five percent of employees said their workplace was providing round-the-clock mental health support, though only 47% of employees said that support included clinical help via services like telemedicine services. Forty-three percent of employers say they are expanding sick leave, while 31% say they are providing childcare support services. Seventy percent of employers are also providing tips on working remotely to their employees.

The survey found more than half of employers are not encouraging their employees to work remotely. Fifty-three percent of employers in the healthcare and medical field are doing so, employees reported in the survey, but no more than 48% in any of the other industry categories replied similarly.

Twenty-six percent of retail employers have not encouraged their employees to work remotely, the survey found, though retail stores still open during the pandemic are relying on their workers to meet an overwhelming demand of shoppers. Walmart, who has hired 150,000 employees since the pandemic began, recently started requiring employees to wear masks to help curb the spread of the virus.

More common than remote work across the various industries was the implementation of social distancing practices. The survey found the healthcare industry had the widest use of social distancing practices — 72% restricting gatherings at work, 61% increasing space between employees and 68% encouraging social distancing among employees. Fifty-five percent of retail employers are encouraging social distancing among employees, and the same number was found among government and religious workers.

The survey found employers who work in finance and insurance implemented social distancing measures the least. Twenty-six percent of such employees said their employers were found to be restricting large gatherings at work, while 14% have increased space between employees and 25% have encouraged social distancing among employees. Financial and insurance workers were among the most adversely impacted by the virus when it came to social well-being, 61% reporting a decline in that area according to the survey.


Optum says it is planning to update the survey results in a couple of weeks to gauge a trend in employee well-being, the pandemic’s global impact considered by many to be unprecedented. The study was conducted March 25 and 26, weeks after new restrictions on social gatherings were implemented nationwide to curb the spread of the pandemic. It was taken online by full-time employees working for companies with 500 or more employees. Three hundred of the employees who responded worked for a company with 3,000 employees or more, while 200 said they worked for employers with 500 to 2,999 employees.


“Without having both a treatment and a vaccine already in place, there’s a huge unknown around COVID-19 in terms of what the future is going to look like,” said Serxner, who headed the survey. “That uncertainty creates a lot of angst.”

Max Sullivan is a freelance writer and reporter who, in addition to writing about healthcare, has covered business stories, municipal government, education and crime. Twitter: @maxsullivanlive 

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