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Carey research explores impact of the pandemic on emotional wellbeing

Why it matters: For World Mental Health Day, Associate Professor Haiyang Yang shares his research and insights on the mental wellbeing of people affected by the pandemic.

How is your mental health?

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on our daily lives, including our mental health and emotional wellbeing. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that anxiety and depression went up 25 percent worldwide because of it.

October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which is an opportunity to understand the impact of mental health around the world, and to support individuals experiencing mental health issues.

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At Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Associate Professor Haiyang Yang conducted large-scale studies on the mental wellbeing of people affected by the pandemic. Dr. Yang explains why mental health is important in business, and what he discovered through his research.

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The importance of mental wellbeing can’t be overstated, but why is it important to understand from a business perspective?

The societal implications of good mental health are pretty evident—we all desire mental wellness, and the psychological wellbeing of individuals is critical to the society at large. When we talk about business, we're essentially talking about people. Regardless of whether you are a C-level executive or a frontline employee, if you are mentally devastated, can you be as productive as when you are well? Can you be as creative as you should be? Can you serve customers as well as you should? The answers will probably be no. Analogous detrimental effects may apply to customers, business partners, and other stakeholders. Finally, past research suggests that poor mental health can lead to physical health problems. This obviously impacts all aspects of business as well.

It is important to note that there is an opportunity to help people improve mental wellbeing here. Firms can innovate, help health care providers in offering new mental health-related services, and facilitate better care delivery. They can help fulfill a growing need in society.

Through your studies, what were some of the factors you identified that impacted emotional wellbeing during the pandemic, and did you identify factors that could help improve emotional wellbeing?

In multiple studies, our research team examined how the onset of the COVID pandemic in China impacted the population’s emotional wellbeing. First, people’s emotional wellbeing went down by 74 percent as compared to the period before the pandemic. Second, the notion of the sense of control was associated with emotional wellbeing. Specifically, people who perceived that they knew enough about COVID and know how to prevent infection experienced a higher sense of control. They had better emotional welling compared to those that did not have the same level of a sense of control. Of course, you must separate mental wellbeing from physical wellbeing. Ideally, people should gain a sense of control from actual capabilities and real knowledge that support their physical wellbeing. To me, having a sense of control is one of the keys to feeling better during difficult situations such as a pandemic.

They say “money can’t buy happiness” but you studied the relationship between wealth and emotional well-being before and during the pandemic. What did you find?

Our research team had access to data across self-reported income brackets. Our findings suggest that having more money was indeed a good thing. When the pandemic arrived, everyone was worse off, but people with money were still happier. If you think about it, people with means and resources can still live more comfortably than those who do not. What's more intriguing to me is what happens after the country was able to contain the virus and reopen its economy.

During the reopening phase, those with money were actually happier than they were before the pandemic. Of course, this could be a relatively short-term effect. The overall pattern suggests that those with more resources were able to indulge as soon as the floodgate was open and experience a lot of pleasure. People who are really at the bottom of the economic scale, however, were still suffering and could not quickly get back to where they were before the pandemic.

We know that some people turn to substances like alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs to self-manage their emotional well-being. What did you find?

The answer is very nuanced. With smokers in China, for example, we found that more people quit than started smoking during the pandemic. If you ask the former group why, many felt more vulnerable to COVID as it targets the lungs. We saw similar changes with alcohol consumption. It is important to note that the pandemic impacts numerous aspects of life. For instance, many people might not have the money to support their addictive behaviors. On the other hand, there might be an increased need to cope with stress, which could increase consumption. Thus, there are opposing forces, and the outcome depends on the relative strength of each force.

What’s the biggest policy impact of your research on wellbeing during the pandemic?

In almost all the studies, we observe that some population segments are significantly more vulnerable to the detrimental impact of the pandemic. Also, different individuals may require different mental health assistance. If you're a policymaker, you need to fully understand the differences across population segments and effectively take account of these differences in policymaking and implementation.


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