How Brands Should Respond to the Coronavirus Mental Health Crisis

May 14, 2020

On March 19th, GutCheck began conducting our Consumer Mindset Index, an online quantitative study tracking evolutions in attitudes and behaviors of adults across the United States. As our research progressed over the last seven weeks, we began noticing a very concerning trend: the mental well-being of respondents to our surveys has been dropping at a significant rate. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we wanted to highlight a few key themes related to what we’re seeing, while also addressing how brands should respond.

In our study, the percentage of people who rated their mental health as “Excellent” or “Very Good” decreased 11 percentage points over the course of just a few weeks. And we’re not the only ones taking note of this reality.

A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that the virus was impacting the mental health of nearly half of U.S. citizens. Additionally, a survey administered by Healthline found that 49 percent of respondents demonstrated signs of mild to severe depression, a number that typically hovers around 37 percent. There’s no doubt that mass unemployment, the specter of global recession, and forced social isolation have been the leading contributors to this rapid decline in mental health – the fallout of which can and should not be ignored.

As a worldwide collective, we’ve made major sacrifices to ensure the long-term health of those most at risk from complications of contracting the virus. While quarantines and lockdowns have indeed helped reduce the strain on our healthcare system, these actions have also come at a cost to the mental well-being of the general population.

Not All Needs Are Created Equal

When we asked consumers what their top priorities for the month included, “staying positive” was the number one response at 63 percent of respondents. For comparison purposes, “maintaining relationships” was at 39 percent, and “learning and development” a mere 23 percent. It’s very clear that right now, people are just trying to get through the day and survive.

Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs” theory states that before individuals can focus on personal growth, they must first tend to much more basic survival needs, such as food, drink, safety, shelter, and clothing. Applying this theory to our situation today, tens of millions of people are out of work right now, and they have no idea how long their savings might last or if they might find employment again soon. We’re seeing these folks express major concerns around their most basic of needs, like making rent payments and feeding their families. At such a time, more aspirational, self-actualized needs like building up self-esteem and cultivating a sense of purpose and belonging take a backseat. This shift results in increased levels of stress, which in turn quite negatively affects the mental health of the general public.

Some Groups Have Been Hit Harder than Others

  • Millennials, who were already suffering from depression and loneliness more than other generations, are even more at risk due to COVID-19. Half of Millennials have felt stressed either “fairly or very often.”
  • We’ve also seen some differences between men and women as they deal with the virus. 38 percent of females rated their mental health as “Fair or Poor,” compared to 24 percent of males. Additionally, 49 percent of women felt stressed “Often or Very Often,” a rate 18 percent higher than their male counterparts.
  • With schools closed, parents are facing an uphill battle trying to adjust to different routines with children constantly at home. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that 40 percent of the general public stated their lives had been disrupted either “a lot” or “some” due to the pandemic and within that group, those with kids under 18 were represented at a disproportionately higher rate.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Prior to the pandemic, it was widely reported that employees who had the ability to work from home were happier, more productive, and enjoyed more free time than those who didn’t.

But most workers weren’t entirely remote prior to COVID-19 as they are now. Most either had the option to do so occasionally or were required to be in the office every day. Now that practically everyone in a non-service industry role has been forced to work from home, we’re seeing some of the negative outcomes of remote work come to light on a much broader scale.

Many who previously did not work from home are having trouble adjusting to their new situation and finding it difficult to achieve a healthy work-life balance. They’re seemingly always “on call” and don’t know how to shut down the laptop, ignore the late-night messages and focus on themselves. As one respondent to our survey stated, “I feel glued to my computer screen and virtually connected all the time. I can’t get away from work.”

Additionally, it has become more difficult for employees to cultivate personal connections and friendships with co-workers, who were reliable social outlets prior to the pandemic.

What Does This Mean for Brands?

Businesses must carefully navigate the waters of such painful times and strike a delicate balance between two extremes – either ignoring the virus entirely or exploiting the pandemic to promote your brand without offering real solutions for customers. The latter, which has been termed “COVIDwashing,” can make your brand come off as disingenuous rather than helpful.

If you don’t try to understand your audience – their ups, their downs, their challenges, their fears – you can’t even begin to connect to them, let alone earn their business. Consumers everywhere are trying to cope with an extremely difficult situation and brands need to empathize with them. By doing so, you’ll begin to earn trust and build goodwill.

In a crisis, gathering and analyzing audience insights is one way to break down barriers, understand your consumers’ needs and pain points, and develop messages that will resonate with them. Download our eGuide on conducting research during times of disruption to learn how you can get started on the path to deeper connections with those who matter most to your business.

Written By

Kate Sowder

Kate Sowder

Director, Research Science

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