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New research serves as a red flag as variety of stressors converge, Prudential’s Kristin Tugman warns.

By Keli Tianga

November 12, 2020

A perfect storm of mental health triggers looms: Holiday stress, a worsening pandemic, and a long, isolated winter are arriving across America. And the resulting financial strain and uncertainty of it all requires people to be on alert to spot and treat these serious issues, warns Prudential’s Kristin Tugman, a doctor of industrial and organizational psychology.

A new report, “Ties That Bind: The Tight Links Between Mental and Financial Health,” drills deeper into the significant connection between financial stress and mental health and well-being. The report notes that among people who described themselves as “highly stressed,” money was most often cited as the main cause.

Tugman, vice president, Health and Productivity Analytics and Consulting Practice at Prudential Group Insurance and co-author of the report, says the impact of financial instability on stress levels is crystal clear.

“We know financial problems are one of the most profound stressors affecting mental health due to the anxiety they raise over our basic need to ensure our own health and security,” she says. “With COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn, our health and financial wellbeing feel endangered. If you feel insecure, you may also feel paralyzed and unable to take positive action in other areas of your life.”

Financial strain is being felt across the spectrum, from the newly unemployed or furloughed to those still working but facing an uncertain future. Tugman asserts that this instability, coupled with the nation entering a third season of quarantine measures and social tumult, has created what she calls a “perfect storm” of stress that she and other mental health professionals agree will only be exacerbated this holiday season.

Mental Health America, a national nonprofit focused on mental health education and awareness, reported a near doubling in the number of people who chose to take its online anxiety screening between January and September 2020 compared to the same period the year before. The substantial uptick was similar for its depression screening, with a 62% rise in the number of people who chose to take it.

Support through the holidays and beyond

The “holiday blues” are well-documented, encompassing the feelings of despair and loneliness some experience around the winter holiday season. The phenomenon is usually caused by factors such as isolation and distance, difficult family relationships and unrealistic expectations. This year, as spending budgets are tightened and traditional social gatherings are greatly reduced due to social distancing measures and travel restrictions, Tugman says these feelings may be amplified for those prone to them and might afflict a wider segment of the population. 

“The holidays will not look like they traditionally do this year, and people are going to feel additional stress,” says Tugman, adding, “like in a normal year, just because holiday decorations are up doesn’t mean that stress will go away.”

Feeling anxiety or sadness about months in quarantine is normal, and to help alleviate some of that stress, Tugman encourages people to take advantage of employer-sponsored financial wellness programs and mental health services, which can help them regain feelings of control over their lives.

She notes, however, it’s important for individuals to pay attention to signs that a situation is more serious and requires professional evaluation.

For example, when feelings of uneasiness, hopelessness and sadness become pervasive and impact daily routines including work, sleeping or eating, “It’s time to raise your hand for professional help in caring for your mental health,” says Tugman. She also explains the same is true for people experiencing financial problems, which are often considered a source of shame and can cause people to delay seeking help, adding that “trapped” feelings or an inability to envision the future are red flags.

To effectively support employees, employers must be relentless about staying in touch about resources available, says Tugman, citing findings from a recent Prudential study focusing on front-line workers that saw greater employee participation in financial wellness programs and mental health services when employers communicated frequently about their availability and encouraged people to use them.

A majority of Americans were already pessimistic about their financial futures as the pandemic took hold, according to Prudential’s Financial Wellness Census. Tugman says prior to the pandemic, more employers had already begun validating the financial wellness/mental health connection by introducing additional offerings of financial coaching and support programs for employees. Several months into the pandemic, as many people work remotely or on-site under strict safety measures, employers will not only need to take this more holistic approach to well-being but will have to make concerted efforts to reach out to employees.

Ultimately, Tugman posits, reduced stigma and increased focus on mental health and the factors that most impact it may be some of the few positive outcomes of this period.

“COVID-19 has only put more of a magnifying glass on these issues, and we are seeing employers prioritize improving employee mental health,” she says. “Hopefully as we come out of this period, we will have gained momentum that won’t slow.”

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