- Search data indicate that Montana, Georgia, and Mississippi are the most stressed states in the U.S.
- Of the Top 10 most stressed states, just Michigan had a shelter-in-place order in effect.
- Americans are 12.5 times more stressed about the current economy than they were during the Great Recession.
The COVID-19 pandemic has done incredible damage to the U.S. and global economies, overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, and left a tragic number of people dead, ranging in the hundreds of thousands. The stress to the American economy and the American way of life has been mirrored on individual Americans as well. Record-breaking numbers of people file for unemployment every day, nearly 700,000 people have been confirmed infected in just the U.S., and thousands of people are forced to die alone in hospitals across the country, because quarantine rules prohibit loved ones from being with them.
TOP Data, we wanted to better understand not just how much stress people were under, but which areas of the country were showing the greatest amount of stress, and potentially give some reasons as to why. One way to gauge what the populace is thinking about is to analyze online search data. Knowing what a certain group of people are most searching for creates a window into what they are thinking and when they are thinking it. This metadata can be extrapolated to determine which states were the most stressed about different topics
Using this data, TOP was able to rank individual states by their overall stress levels, and to uncover some interesting correlations between levels of stress and shelter-in-place orders. Montana topped the list of the most stressed states per capita. Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma followed closely behind. Among the least stressed states were Delaware, New Jersey, and New Mexico.
On closer examination of the data, TOP discovered that of the three most stressful states on the list, two of them had no statewide shelter-in-place order, and the top state, Montana, wouldn’t have one in place until two days into the study. In fact, of the top 10 most stressed states, just one, Michigan, had an existing shelter-in-place order in effect prior to the start of the study on 3/26. This suggests that there is a negative correlation between the level of stress a state’s search data reveals and whether or not that state had taken these proactive measures to curb the spread of the virus.
It also suggests that uncertainty levels that come from the lack of these proactive steps, leads people to search for answers on their own. This correlation could play out in other ways today as discussions over how and when to lift shelter-in-place orders and reopen state economies cause uncertainty and confusion. We may see similar results on future stress studies with the correlation lying not in whether there is a shelter-in-place order in effect, but when state officials are considering lifting those orders.
The Economic Impact Of Stress
The impact on the global economy has so far been immeasurable. It is not clear how long the economic downturn could last or whether it will follow its best-case scenario and result in a global recession or follow a worse trajectory and enter a full-on depression. However, a look at historic unemployment data compared to the ever-growing number of unemployed today does not paint a hopeful picture.
This has had an understandable effect on the stress levels of Americans. TOP Data found that the stress levels as borne out by the search volume of certain indicating terms found that when compared to search volume for those terms in 2009 — the last time the U.S. experienced an economic recession — Americans are currently 12.5 times more stressed than they were at that time.
The Great Recession — a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis — played out over the course of nearly two years. At its height, the U.S. unemployment rate hit 9.9% in October of 2009, an increase of 4.9% over the pre-recession rate of 5% in December of 2007. While current numbers are still in flux, the unemployment rate jumped nearly 1 percentage point between February of 2020 (3.5%) and March of 2020 (4.4%) alone. Unemployment rates are lagging indicators and the March number did not take into account the tens of millions of Americans who newly filed for unemployment near the end of March. That number is expected to be significantly higher when the next jobs report is released. The data indicates that Virginia is 25 times more stressed about unemployment than they were during the Great Recession. In addition, Michigan and New York are almost 17 times more stressed. This suggests that despite the magnitude of the Great Recession, the drastic increase in stress levels depict how COVID-19 is a phenomenon unlike any other.
Hot Spot Comparison: California vs New York
On the macro level, the economic and health stress indicators appear to be evenly matched, however, when looking at individual geographical locations, different areas appeared more stressed about one topic over another. At the time of the study, for instance, there were large discrepancies between two of the nation’s largest, and hardest hit states: California and New York.
The data show that Californians at the time were 6.3 times more stressed about the shelter in place orders than New Yorkers were though their shelter in place orders took effect at essentially the same time — March 19 and March 20th for California and New York, respectively. However, California took an earlier step toward a full shelter-in-place by placing such an order on many of its major cities a week before. So by the time the study was conducted 6-7 days into both state-wide orders, the majority of Californians had been experiencing it twice as long as New Yorkers.
Similarly, at the time of the study, New Yorkers were 1.4 times more concerned about unemployment than their west coast counterparts. This could have been a reaction to the major news stories published during the time of the study indicating that New York’s unemployment insurance website was ill-equipped to handle the influx of new filers, having crashed in the middle of the study window. Seen at the time as the biggest lifeline at the time (the CARES Act had only been signed into law one day into the study), it is understandable for New Yorkers to feel the stress of the unemployment system particularly acutely.
Americans are stressed. And with the twin health and economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the data indicate that they are understandably so.