Teachers aren’t the only ones feeling burned out after the past year and a half, Koenen said. Health care workers and others deemed “essential” toiled even through the strictest shutdowns, and Koenen said many may be reevaluating work lives, long commutes, and other demands of employment. Employers, she said, would do well to recognize these pressures, communicate clearly with employees, and make accommodations for adjusted schedules, leaves, and other steps to reduce stress and burnout.

The 45-minute event, “The Coronavirus Pandemic: The Mental Health Aspects of Reopening Society,” featured Koenen and moderator Elana Gordon, a reporter for PRX’s “The World.” It was sponsored by The Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and “The World.”

Koenen said there were positives to emerge from the pandemic, and she hopes those things don’t go away. Things that were thought impossible — like providing insurance reimbursement for telehealth and, in particular, tele-mental health — rapidly became routine. She also said many employers are newly sensitive to employee needs, surveying them about work schedules and routines.

“The exciting part is you’re seeing a lot of innovation at the employer level. Lots of employers are doing surveys of employees and really trying to figure out … how it can work, what people want, how to reimagine workspaces,” Koenen said.


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Koenen said she’d like to see more leadership at the national level since much of the response so far has been by states and localities. Federal policies to provide economic stability have had salutary mental health effects, she said, since losing a job or losing a house are major psychological stressors. But mental health nationally needs to be elevated, she said, and, if the U.S. has a “climate czar” to oversee climate change policies, why not also have one for mental health who can provide leadership at the national level?

Even as the pandemic reaches later stages in the U.S., uncertainty continues apace, Koenen said. The emergence of the Delta variant, she said, raises the prospect that it or another strain will be able to evade immune responses and take hold in the U.S. Though vaccine makers have so far said their products can handle the variants that have arisen, as long as the pandemic rages abroad, there’s no guarantee that a new one able to evade vaccines won’t emerge, she said.

“It’s really hard. … We like to feel like we’re in control, we like to think we can predict the future,” Koenen said. “The challenge is we all are going to have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty.”