While the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative toll on mental health may be gradually subsiding, the number of people considered “high-risk” to develop mental health issues is still much higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to a recent survey. 

Twenty-two percent of employees in the U.S. were placed in the high-risk category in the latest Mental Health Index report from TELUS Health. While it’s a drop from 27% in April, that number is still higher than the pre-pandemic level of 14%.

“We haven’t gone back to where we were before the pandemic,” said Paula Allen, global leader and SVP of research and client insights at TELUS Health.

The Mental Health Index tracks mental health and well-being in the workplace across some 5,000 respondents who are employed in the U.S.

The latest report also honed in on isolation as a major driver of mental health issues among employees. 

The survey identified a strong correlation between collaboration and positive mental health. Employees who collaborate more with their co-workers reported higher mental health scores than those who work alone or don’t often collaborate with co-workers.

In particular, 37% of workers said they had to collaborate with coworkers all the time for work and had the highest mental health score of 72.9. The 38% of respondents who said they prefer to work alone all the time, meanwhile, ended up with the lowest mental health scores, at four points below the national average of 70.9.

The findings are timely as Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness and isolation a public health threat last month. More and more, public health officials and lawmakers are calling for policy changes that would help create more robust support systems for people and increase social connection.

“We try to be as topical as possible, and one of the things that’s very topical is people’s sense of connection to other people,” Allen explained. “[Isolation] is a huge risk factor, and we know that this has been getting worse over time. People who have the ongoing experience of collaboration as part of their job – they’re not working by themselves 100% of the time – [we see] their mental health is better.”

Allen noted the Mental Health Index surveys have shown that a large part of the worker population is more sensitive to stress now than they were before the pandemic. Much of that is translating into workplace challenges and conflict.

Just over a quarter of managers reported experiencing team conflict within the last year, along with 15% of employees. Those conflicts can include issues like bullying or harassment.

“When you’re under ongoing strain and have the fight-or-flight mechanism going on, you tend to be a little more on edge and quick to anger,” Allen explained. “We’ve been seeing this in society – but it’s also showing itself in the workplace.”

The survey results ultimately serve as a call to action, she added. 

“We see the increase in [mental health] risk as a global phenomenon. When you’re under strain for a long period of time, you can’t just snap back. The support the organizations are offering has to be more robust,” she said. 

That solution may be two-fold, too. The first part is for companies to help employees on an individual level and make it easier for them to have access to mental health care and support, or to employee assistant programs.

The second column is a bit of a more difficult task: to redesign the workplace environment entirely to have more of a buffer against mental health risk and isolation. This includes a focus on making employees feel safe, recognized and connected – and fostering collaboration.

“It’s not just about clinical symptoms; the environment makes a difference as well,” Allen said. “The important thing to realize is that the workplace can help. You can help people with a sense of belonging. You can help people feel recognized. The dollar that you spend on that will pay back multiple times.”

The worst of the pandemic-era mental health challenges may be slowly dissipating – but there are plenty of obstacles ahead. In particular, “the impact of the pandemic is going to be seen as nothing compared to the impact of AI [on mental health],” Allen said.

“The role of employers in mitigating [that impact] is going to be critical,” she added.