In an industry where burnout was already high pre-pandemic, both frontline and non-frontline healthcare workers continue to experience mental health strain, according to a new study from comms giant Ketchum.

The study found that more than half of healthcare workers report feeling underappreciated, while 27% want mental health programs integrated or expanded in their job benefits. Forty-seven percent of healthcare employees also feel more burned out now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

The study, which surveyed some 1,000 workers toward the end of February 2021, highlights the need for increased investment in mental health care for employees.

“We’re probably in the early stages of the next stage of the pandemic, which is going to be focused on mental health,” said Ketchum chief of staff Michelle Baker. “The mental health challenges affect everyone, from the youngest members of society who are seeing record anxiety to aging people who have been dealing with loneliness.”

Since the pandemic began, four in 10 adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to one in 10 adults in 2019, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

The Ketchum survey also examined the root causes of the burnout among healthcare workers. Contributing factors included a sense of uncertainty around when things would go back to “normal,” financial stresses and isolation from family members and friends.

Frontline workers even reported feeling less appreciated now than workers in other industries. “I think the healthcare industry as a whole has to remember [frontline workers are] still there, and that they’re still fighting for us and dealing with the long-term effects of the difficult time,” Baker said. “It’s important to acknowledge their role in public health.”

But the study also revealed that the pandemic brought with it some positives. It appears to have boosted a sense of strength among healthcare workers, with 60% saying they’ve become more resilient and empathetic to their colleagues.

Meanwhile, Ketchum SVP of employee communications and engagement believes a newfound appreciation for emotional and mental well-being will become a new priority as the world moves out of lockdown. That includes greater expectations for mental health coverage from employers, as well as improved communication between employers and employees.

“Employee values have changed. More employees are seeking and demanding more meaning and purpose at work,” Butler explained. “Frontline workers stepped up in a big way and we made it to the spring of 2021 largely on their backs. They’ve adjusted for us, and employers changed the way and elevated the way they were communicated with. There has been more of a focus on transparent and empathetic communication.”

Indeed, one of the study’s main takeaways was its focus on two-way communication, especially between managers and employees. Half of workers said they wanted their managers to share company communications directly.  

“It’s the idea of the manager as a main channel for communications, on the local level and also on the broader company level,” Butler said. “We need to make sure the manager has the tools he or she needs to do the job effectively. When employees feel heard, they perform better.”