A sign asking for patience hangs on the door of a Dunkin' Donuts. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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There’s been a lot of attention given to why people are leaving the U.S. workforce as the COVID pandemic nears its second year. The reasons, according to economists, political activists and workers themselves, include vaccine mandates, low wages, a lack of child and elder care, unsafe working conditions.

Any and all of these are likely factoring into individual decisions to quit a job or leave the workforce entirely.

But, there is one larger factor that isn’t included in these rationales — many people are mentally unwell and quitting their jobs because they can’t or won’t put up with the continued stress, uncertainty and unease that the pandemic has wrought.

“Something is happening in the workforce. In April, some 4 million Americans quit their jobs. August topped this figure, with 4.3 million quitting their jobs,” Washington Post opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote last week. “Labor churn is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is one of many anomalies caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It matters greatly why people quit in such large numbers.”

Maybe workers moved to more desirable positions. Maybe with workers in short supply, workers were lured to the employers with the highest wages, she posited.

Maybe, Rubin wrote, something else entirely, something that is not easy to categorize or quantify is happening as well.

“And it might be that people are not well,” Rubin wrote. She added: “A new NPR poll finds: ‘The strain that the pandemic put on Americans’ day-to-day lives is having serious repercussions. A lot of Americans are struggling with anxiety and sleeplessness: Half of households report at least one person in the home has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months.’”

We’ll repeat that. Half of households report at least one person who has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months.

The survey found that there are many reasons for stress and anxiety. Thirty-eight percent of households reported serious financial problems. This was especially acute among Black, Latino and Native American households.

More than a quarter of renters reported serious problems paying their rent and 19 percent of households reported draining all of their savings during the pandemic.

More than two-thirds of parents said their children have fallen behind in school during the pandemic. Some worry that their children will struggle to catch up.

A quarter of Asian Americans and nearly as many Native Americans and Black Americans said they feared being attacked or threatened because of their race or ethnicity.

“Many of us have had times when we’ve been overwhelmed with overlapping responsibilities. Balancing family responsibilities and work demands is never easy and when the demands of one or both increase, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, panic and depressed,” we wrote in August.

“For too long, we’ve been encouraged to handle it all, to work through the pain, to compartmentalize our grief and to, essentially, tough it out,” we added.

Perhaps, as Rubin wrote, the pandemic will bring this struggle to the forefront. If childcare is keeping people, especially women, out of the workforce, we should enact policies to change that. Ditto with concerns about unsafe workplaces and the high cost of getting to work, she wrote.

The same applies to our collective mental health.

“Certainly, if a national mental-health crisis is to blame (after more than 18 months of a pandemic, a recession and insane politics, it would be a miracle if that were not the case), then we seriously need to look at mental-health campaigns, insurance benefits and workplace/school training to help supervisors and co-workers recognize evidence of serious stress,” Rubin wrote in her column.

The lack of resources and attention devoted to mental wellbeing is not new during the pandemic. But, we hope the pandemic can lead to better conversation and policy changes needed to help Americans deal with their stress, anxiety and depression, so they can return to their engagement with their work, families and communities.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...