Iglesias: Focus on Employees’ Mental Health and Wellbeing as They Return

Nancy Grover

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey say their stress levels have increased since the COVID-19 outbreak and almost half say their mental health has declined.

While most of us can deal with the excess stress created by the pandemic, there is a significantly increased percentage who may need help. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the rates of adults who said they may have serious psychological distress during the month of April to the same period two years ago. In April 2018, the rate was 4 percent; for this past April it was 14 percent.

“That is concerning,” said Marcos Iglesias, MD, VP and Chief Medical Director at Travelers. “That same study, comparing April of 2020 to April of 2018 found 14 percent of adults are experiencing constant or fairly constant loneliness. It’s a social issue that causes emotional and even physical effects.”

In addition to implementing measures to protect the physical health and safety of those in the workplace, Iglesias advises employers to understand and take steps to ensure the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees as they return. He spoke with WorkersCompensation.com about a white paper he authored to respond to an increasing number of employers’ concerns about best practices to prepare for returning workers.

“The genesis of the white paper came from clients wanting to know about what they could do beyond the usual safety and worksite engineering that needs to take place as people go back to work,” Iglesias said. They’ve been asking questions about communicating with employees, such as “‘how, what should we tell them; how do we implement programs that look to identify people at higher risk of mental health issues, and how to point them to resources that exist.’ So definitely it’s something employers are rightfully concerned about and taking steps to solve.”

The Stressors

In addition to fear of contracting the virus and possibly infecting loved ones, employees and employers alike face a number of concerns, often unique to themselves. One source of physical stress, for example is the avoidance of medical care during the pandemic. Many people have neglected care to manage their chronic conditions, and there’s been evidence that some have avoided medical attention for acute conditions.

Unmet healthcare needs is among the issues that can cause psychological stress. Others include

  • Family issues such as childcare
  • Interpersonal conflicts that may have surfaced as a result of being at home
  • A sense of loss at missing occasions such as graduations, weddings, and funerals as well as conferences, training situations and onsite meetings
  • The sense of isolation
  • Substance abuse
  • Financial stress

Perhaps the biggest stressor of all and the one exacerbating the others is uncertainty.

“It’s not a condition we’ve seen before, so we’ve been struggling as a society.” Iglesias said, “How do you prevent it and treat it? We don’t have a clear parallel to any other condition. It would be bad enough if it was known but it’s unknown. That causes uncertainty, therefore fear, therefore stress. It’s not just a bad condition, but it’s an uncertain one.”

Adding to the stress is the constant barrage of information about the pandemic.

“In today’s day and age with constant media attention, social media, it magnifies the uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety. It’s harder to get away from that stress,” Iglesias said. “So it’s not surprising 14 percent have symptoms of serious psychological stress.”

The added-up stress can cause physical consequences such as fatigue, sleeplessness, depression and anxiety. That can lead to poor work performance as well as poor health.

“The first thing is to realize as employees return to the work site is that they are going to bring with them a lot of these fears, some of the uncertainty and new uncertainty,” Iglesias said. “As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, recognizing employees’ emotional and social health can help them reintegrate into the workforce and allow employers to offer additional resources when needed.”

Strategies for Employers

Knowing what to expect when they return to the work site will alleviate some of the uncertainty and reassure employees that the employer has their best interests in mind. Frequent communication about the organization’s response plans will help, such as social distancing and personal protective equipment.

Flexibility in work arrangements, such as adjusted schedules and remote working when possible may also help certain employees readjust easier.

While employers typically may avoid conversations about an employee’s mental health, it’s important to help those who may need it. Identifying these workers need not be complex or invasive.

“We need to get comfortable as employers and managers to ask our employees, ‘hey, are you ok?’” Iglesias said. “It just cements that open communication we want to have,”

The employer should ask such a question in a respectful manner. The idea is not to get the person’s medical history, but to open up the conversation. While most employees won’t need outside help, employers should know how to direct workers who may.

“It’s important to understand there are a lot of good resources out there. Employers may have some through their employee assistance program; resources like resilience building, resources like how to deal with social situations, emotional situations, lack of sleep. Pointing employees to those resources is good,” Iglesias said. “There are community and national resources, and crisis intervention, whether suicide prevention hotlines, child abuse hotlines, sexual abuse hotlines, it’s important to remember they exist and, where necessary, to be able to tap into those resources.”

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