More than two years into a pandemic that has exacted a heavy toll on their mental health, Americans are facing yet another hardship expected to strain their emotional well-being: inflation.

That’s based on a new report from mental health platform LifeWorks, which observed a decline in American workers’ mental health from April to May of this year. According to LifeWorks’ monthly Mental Health Index, a fifth of Americans are struggling to meet basic needs due to inflation, and these 20% had a mental health score 16 points lower than the national average.

“We’re finding there’s a relationship between how people are experiencing inflation and their mental health,” said Paula Allen, global leader and SVP of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks.

The index, which surveys some 5,000 people, examines how workers are coping with mental health issues and how their ability to do so changes over time. The latest findings arrived this month.

Also noted in the report, 15% of Americans don’t feel their housing will be secure in the next year, and 48% have cut back on spending due to inflation. There are several factors at play, including the extended isolation of the pandemic, but the main culprit involves uncertainty.

“When you have difficulty meeting even your basic needs – rent, food and transportation – then you’ve got a lot of uncertainty in your life,” Allen said. “There’s no way that wouldn’t impact peoples’ thinking, behavior, emotions and overall health.”

Even if a person doesn’t lose their job due to inflation or to an impending recession, Allen explained, having work hours reduced or worrying about long-term job security can be just as harmful to mental health.

“The uncertainty is actually in some ways worse,” Allen said. “We’re in another phase of uncertainty right now because we don’t know whether prices are going to go up again. You don’t know whether you’re going to be OK tomorrow or be able to supplement your income or re-arrange your savings.”

In December, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public advisory officially announcing a “mental health crisis” among young people. And while demand for mental healthcare has surged since the pandemic started, mental health professionals like therapists and psychiatrists have been struggling to meet that demand.

“Unfortunately, the access issue is probably going to get worse before it gets better,” Allen predicted. “It’s not just a matter of adding bodies or more training, more counselors. We have to think about digital healthcare, peer support and a number of other things to make sure people get what they need.”

There are several ways individuals and employers can address the mounting crisis, however. From an individual standpoint, Allen recommended having a plan in place for financial emergencies, job loss or other obstacles.

“It’s important to think through a situation [in advance], that you’re going to do this if gas prices get to this stage, or you’re going to change what you do in terms of groceries, or look for a second source of income,” she explained. “Having a plan gives you control, and control is really important.”

“This is a time to look at your finances, become more savvy and build up your emergency savings,” Allen added. “We find that having emergency savings makes a difference in terms of peoples’ sense of at least having a cushion – and not feeling so vulnerable.”

While feeling a sense of isolation may seem unavoidable in the post-pandemic world, social connection remains integral, Allen said. “The last thing that we should shrink in our lives is other people.” 

She also suggested employee assistance programs, which often provide access to a counselor without out-of-pocket costs or a 24/7 crisis line.