COVID-19  August 5, 2020

COVID disrupts mental health of workers

COVID-19 has disrupted, quite obviously, the lives of workers — both at work and in personal terms, resulting in negative effects.

Anxiety, depression, increased addictions, increased alcohol use, disrupted sleep patterns, reduced energy and anti-social behaviors have all been documented since the pandemic began in mid-March.

Yet mental health experts say that life has always been lived in a state of uncertainty. The current situation hasn’t changed that.

Several mental health and human resources experts gathered to talk about the impacts of the pandemic on workers during a BizWest webinar in July.

Taking a step back from the circumstances of the pandemic, Vincent Atchity, CEO of Mental Health Colorado based in Denver, spoke of how the disease has amplified the uncertainty that has always existed. “We are always living in a state of uncertainty. We were lulled [pre-COVID into believing] that we’re not in a state of uncertainty because of the regularity of our lives,” Atchity said. “None of us can count on our health and well being persisting beyond the day we have at the moment,” he said.

The anxiety workers feel is caused by “casting too far into the future.” He advocated adopting the European philosophy of “work to live,” not the U.S. philosophy of “live to work.”

Jessica Hartung, founder of Integrated Work, a Boulder-based leadership training organization, said leaders within organizations face increased pressures from the pandemic.

Leaders, she said, have all the pressures faced by workers plus the pressure of being responsible for strategic direction of companies.

“Strategic leadership requires deep thought. Incorporating that into what we do and protecting time for this is a challenge that I’ve seen leaders facing,” she said.

People are grieving the “loss of freedoms that we all took for granted,” she said, which is overlaid on the responsibilities of leadership.

Sunday Sotomayor, director of human resources for Delta Dental Colorado, said leaders may feel especially burdened during this time, but the weight of the challenge isn’t lost on rank and file workers. Workers see and appreciate that leaders are dealing with COVID, with working from home, with the weight of the business and the well being of employees, she said.

Both Atchity and Chris Berger, CEO of Foundations Counseling LLC with offices in Fort Collins, Loveland and Windsor, said workers have a high need for security — they worry about layoffs, for example. Leaders need to be especially attuned to changes in behavior and appearance that may signal a need for intervention.

People have differing abilities to disconnect from work when the work day is over, especially now that so many workers are doing their jobs from home. They need to be encouraged to get outdoors, to get exercise, to stay focused on the present, to manage those things within their control and to reconnect with people who support them, Atchity said.

Hartung said employers can give employees things to count on during turbulent times and see employees as humans first and employees second.

“Have a culture that supports wellness, and that is something you can do right now,” she said.

HR experts said bringing workers back to the office needs to be a deliberate act and not haphazard. Sotomayor said Delta Dental is bringing workers back in phases. “We’re putting as much care into re-entry as we did to working from home,” she said. “We’ve recognized that we may have to retreat from the re-entry plan,” she said.

Betsy Wheeler, chief people officer for Otter Products based in Fort Collins but with operations globally, said Otter has taken a conservative approach.

“What needs to be back in the office? How can we restructure the office to make it safe?” she asked. She said re-entry often has to happen on a case-by-case basis for each employee. Some “Otters” may have daycare issues that won’t resolve yet, for example. Some may have greater levels of fear. “Flexibility is the key,” she said.

“How can we make something good out of this so we can have a more flexible work environment,” Wheeler said.

Otterbox has also tried to learn from cultural differences between domestic and international divisions. Ireland has a “wellness hour” at the beginning of the work day. The company has employed forums to permit staff members to share how to make life better. Staff gets satisfaction out of sharing what they’ve learned with others, she said.

While the pandemic may be causing mental health issues for workers, the “silver lining of the pandemic might be the sense that mental health is like physical health and something we all have in common,” said Atchity. “No one can count on mental health to be the same from one end of life to the other,” he said.

Berger advised employers to “talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. It must be an ongoing conversation to normalize it,” he said.

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