By Teresa Williams, MSW, LCSW, Managing Partner, HomeCare Connect
Mental health is getting hammered by COVID-19.
More than 36 percent of US adults are showing symptoms of depression or anxiety during the pandemic; that’s up from 11 percent in 2019. The American Academy of Clinical Psychologists have seen high rates of suicide. Nearly 11% considered suicide, with suicidal ideations most prevalent in the 18-24 age group (25.5%).
A little over 13 percent started or increased substance abuse, with alcohol sales rising 55 percent during the shutdowns, according to the Nielsen Company.
What’s worse is these numbers will probably continue to climb as the pandemic drags on. The longer a person is depressed, the more depressed they become.
Eight out of 10 Americans feel stressed by the pandemic, and cumulative stress can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD are often agitated, irritable, hostile, and hypervigilant. Some indulge in self-destructive behavior, and many suffer from insomnia, nightmares, heightened reactions, anxiety, and depression.
People deal with stress all the time. A loved one dies. They or a family member become seriously ill. They lose their job. Their lifestyle changes suddenly.
But, this pandemic has managed to aggregate numerous stressors into one long time period. Perhaps most troubling is the uncertainty. We don’t know exactly how the virus transmits or who will get really sick. There’s no proven treatment, no vaccine, and we don’t know when it will end.
Usually with traumatic event people know it will be over in 30 or 90 days. But this mega stressor has no known end point.
Wise employers are paying close attention to taking care of their staff members’ mental health during this time and giving them tools to help them cope effectively to prevent mental health disorders.
Some people are experiencing abnormal anxiety and depression for the first time. Those who have had these symptoms before may see them worsen. Workers who suddenly shifted to telecommuting–especially while homeschooling children or caring for young ones–face added stress.
The most important thing employers can do is supply accurate, regular information. Without it, people speculate, and speculations turn into catastrophizing or “awfulizing.”
Webinars or fact sheets educating workers on the impact the pandemic is having on mental health all over the country will remind them that their feelings are normal and shared by millions. They are not alone like they may think. Learning more about mental health issues may increase their compassion for others and encourage them open up about their own fears and seek help.
Talk About the Business
Companies should tell employees how they are faring overall. Even if revenue has plummeted and layoffs are likely, people appreciate having time to prepare and understand the transition plans in place.
Don’t wait until the last minute to relay bad news. While anxiety provoking, preparing for a layoff is better than being surprised by one. Employees that survive a wave of layoffs become more anxious if their colleagues are treated poorly. Transparency builds trust.
Talk About the Coronavirus
Some companies will want to update their staff on COVID-19 exposures, infections, and hospitalizations in their area, using trusted sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or Johns Hopkins University. More importantly, let your people know what the company is doing to protect them, especially workers reporting to a worksite.
Show them you care about everyone’s physical and mental well-being. That goes beyond your staff to your clients, vendor partners, providers.
Tell employees what to do if they or members of their household contract COVID-19. How should they report exposure or infection and to whom? How will the company protect their privacy?
Let employees know what you know – and what you don’t. If you really don’t know something, it’s ok to say so. Instead of setting and changing reopening dates, tell employees the decision has not been made yet and what criteria you’re using for a reopening decision.
People are more apt to share in smaller settings. Supervisors can hold virtual, weekly team meetings, partly to impart company news, but mainly to check to see how their team is doing.
Remind them that no one is in harm’s way and everyone should continue to do the job as best they can and ask for help when they need it. Also remind them that everyone’s under pressure and to be kind and supportive to each other. In short, cultivate a culture of caring.
Pay special attention to your younger colleagues. The therapy app Woebot conducted a survey that found that over 60 percent of Millennials and GenZ respondents said they felt “nervous, anxious or on edge,” compared to only 20 percent of Baby Boomers.
If someone seems withdrawn, agitated, or apathetic, call them privately to find out what is troubling them. Talking about workloads, flex time, isolation, prioritizing tasks, and potentially shifting work to a colleague may help them cope. Some issues may be addressed by suggesting they take off work for a week or long weekend to recharge.
However, if it’s more than burnout, the employee may need to be encouraged to use employee assistance programs or see a therapist, even virtually. Now, there are even therapy apps. Help them find solutions or receive the psychological help they need.
HR During the Pandemic
Review sick leave policies, health insurance and EAP benefits, and any special COVID-19 initiatives you have. Make sure to share details about these benefits, especially EAP, insurance coverage and leave policies for employees who contract the virus.
Consider changing PTO/vacation leave policies. Some employees don’t want to take time off because they aren’t comfortable traveling; others may fear for their jobs. Promote staycations, but also consider rolling unused time over into the next year, just for the pandemic. Even flexible organizations can work more flexibility into their policies during this difficult time.
That said, taking time off can help employees decompress and prevent burnout. Taking off a week or long weekend can work wonders. Leaders should model this by taking off time themselves.
If employees still hesitate to use PTO or vacation leave, consider a company-wide holiday, a “good mental health” day. If everyone cannot be off at the same time, do these in shifts.
During the weekly team calls or through brief emails, offer tips for stress reduction, such as limiting news intake and social media time, avoiding toxic people, alcohol, and recreational drugs; and developing healthy eating and sleeping habits.
Also, it’s important that people find and follow trustworthy healthcare experts. Encouraging your teammates to limit news intake and social media is a start. You can point them to organizations that are publishing reliable COVID-19 information, such as the CDC, Johns Hopkins University, the American Psychological Association, and the Red Cross.
For substance abuse, there’s the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Making a list of local public health departments and places of worship with psychological services or ministries is another way to support your folks.
Some companies have rolled out online yoga and other exercise classes and mindfulness sessions. Wellness webinars are also useful. These are some topic ideas:
- What is self-compassion and how do you get it?
- What to do if you’re drinking or using meds more often than usual.
- A scientific look at the physical and mental benefits of exercise.
- The principles of meditation; guided meditation and mindfulness sessions.
- Time management when work and home overlap.
- Attitude adjustments. Accepting that there are things you can’t control, but you can control your response to those things.
At a time like this, employers cannot over communicate. Staff need to know what’s happening with the company. They also need to realize that the extra stress, anxiety, and depression they feel are part of a country-wide experience. They’re not alone, and there are tangible things to do to reduce the symptoms.
Keep in mind that mental illness – unfortunately – stills carries a stigma. Employees may hide or deny symptoms for fear of losing their jobs, embarrassment, or not being considered good team players. They need to know that they will not be penalized for admitting to having anxiety or depression or for using your EAP.
On a positive note, the pandemic may increase people’s compassion. If you care for your employees well–reduce stressors, validate feelings, and keep them informed—they are more apt to empathize with injured workers and other stakeholders in workers’ compensation. And that’s a good thing for everyone.
About Teresa Williams
Teresa Williams oversees day-to-day operations and provides hands-on experience in clinical oversight of the company’s home health, durable medical equipment and home modification services. Williams developed the company’s comprehensive national home health provider network and its post-acute care referral network.
Before co-founding Home Care Connect in 2011, she was a partner in a Medicare Set-Asides company. Previously she worked for 18 years in psychiatric settings in hospitals, both in management and counseling roles.
A Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Williams earned her Bachelors of Sociology degree from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia and a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from Florida State University in Tallahassee.
About HomeCare Connect
Specializing in catastrophic cases, HomeCare Connect manages the quality and cost of home health care, post-acute care, DME and supplies, home modification and prosthetics and orthotics for workers’ compensation patients and payers. The Inc. 5000 and the Orlando Business Journal’s lists of fast-growing, privately held companies have captured its rapid growth. Based in Winter Park, Florida, near Orlando, the company serves clients nationally and can be reached at www.homecareconnect.com or 855-223-2228.
HomeCare Connect is a WorkCompWire ad partner.
This is not a paid placement.