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HEALTH CONCERN

For the first time, the Fed is discussing workers’ mental health

Empty office overlooking Philadelphia skyline.
REUTERS/Hannah Beier
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  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

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The mental health of workers is now part of the Fed’s assessment of the outlook of the US economy. A mention of employee mental health surfaced for the first time in the latest Beige Book from the US Federal Reserve.

Spotted by Glassdoor economist Daniel Zhao, he tweeted that he found six references to “mental health” in the Fed’s book, formally called the Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions. The Beige Book is published eight times a year, and is used by investors and economists to gauge the health of the US economy. Zhao scraped the book’s text since the 1970s and looked for all instances of the phrase “mental health,” with the first appearance in May 2020. Each reference, except the latest one, was about a demand for mental health services, not workers’ mental health.

The Beige Book, named after the color of the print edition, is compiled by interviews by the regional Fed banks. Business owners raised concerns about their employees’ mental wellbeing. “Worries about employee mental health, burnout, safety, and vaccine mandates impacting company culture were mentioned,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta noted.

The appearance of mental health in the October report indicates that many businesses are talking about this issue, wrote Zhao, in an email. More specifically, it highlights how challenging the pandemic is not just for workers but also employers who are trying to help employees manage those issues. “Ultimately, the economy is built by people and their health is important to the economy,” he wrote.

For the past 18 months, Covid-19 has upended how people work, and the discussion of mental health has become more prevalent. During the pandemic, reports of anxiety and depression increased. In response, employers have offered increased support for workers’ mental health in part to help retain them. The usage of mental health apps saw a surge during the pandemic.

Workers’ mental health has taken a toll during Covid-19

The concern of employers for their workers’ wellbeing comes as Americans continue to leave their jobs in droves. Nearly 4.3 million workers voluntarily quit their jobs in August, hitting a record high, the latest job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. The reasons why they are quitting vary and stem from the pandemic, whether people are fed up with the pay, concerned about working during a health crisis, or being more picky about the jobs they take.

The discussion of burnout is also surfacing in Glassdoor employee reviews, where the mention of “burnout” in reviews doubled from .20% in February 2020 to .40% in September 2021.

Mental health has gotten less stigmatized over the years, as well-off millennial workers are willing to ask for help, as Russel Glass, CEO of Ginger, a mental health services app, which works with companies including Domino’s and Sephora, told Quartz.

During the pandemic, which also exposed the unequal treatment between white- and blue-collar workers, access to mental health resources has reached non-white collar workers. Walmart, for instance, announced in May it was extending the number of free counseling sessions for sales associates.

It is also not the first time the Fed has tapped into the zeitgeist. Back in 2018, ghosting at work—a phrase used to indicate when a worker stops coming to work without notice and then can’t be reached—made it into the Fed’s Beige Book. The report’s qualitative approach helps paint a nuanced picture capturing the dynamics and trends in the economy that might not be readily apparent in the data.

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