Worker health and wellness

The next wave? NSC webinar explores worker mental health during and after COVID-19 pandemic

Photo: jamesjames2541/iStockphoto

Itasca, IL — The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed how work gets done. Take for example Loveland, CO-based Nutrien, which transitioned one-fourth of its 24,000-person workforce to remote work in early March.

For the affected employees of the agricultural crop inputs and services provider, and the millions of others in organizations like it, adjusting to the “new normal” has not always been easy. This is why, in part, helping employees with mental health concerns related to the pandemic should be an important aspect of every employer’s response, John Horne, vice president of safety and health at Nutrien, said during an April 14 webinar hosted by the National Safety Council.

“This has been a big shift,” Horne said. “We’re an essential business. We play a critical role in the global food supply. It’s really important that we recognize the impact of this on our workers – both the workers who remain on the front line and the people we’ve asked to work from home.”

The other featured speakers on the webinar, titled The Employer Role: Mental Health During COVID-19, were Marissa J. Levine, a professor at the University of South Florida; Eric Goplerud, chair of the board of directors for the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions; and David Sharar, CEO of Illinois-based Chestnut Health Systems.

The ‘next pandemic’

Levine, who also is the director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at USF, noted that as the number of cases of COVID-19 – and related deaths – begin to decline in the next month or so, as projections indicate, an aftershock likely will come in the form of mental health issues among workers.

“I’ve heard it said that the next pandemic wave may be mental health,” she said. “Honestly, I’m concerned about that. It’s affected every state, every one of us, in some way.”

Workers might be facing a number of issues during the crisis that can have an impact on mental health, including furloughs and layoffs, social isolation, financial hardships and worries, and health concerns for themselves and their families.

“We need to be crisis leaders in our sphere of influence,” Levine said. “All of the things going on here are about people.”

She recommended employers and managers follow and share coping strategies from sources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which suggests taking breaks from consuming news reports related to the pandemic, taking time to unwind, working on physical fitness and social connections, setting goals and priorities, and focusing on the facts.

Reliable resources

Employees might be getting information from numerous, and sometimes unreliable, sources at this time. To communicate helpful resources, Goplerud and Sharar shared strategies to make sure workers hear their employer’s message.

“It’s very difficult, in these anxious times, to catch peoples’ attention,” Goplerud said. “There are 11 words which will help you communicate and break through the anxiety: A simple message, repeated often, from a variety of trusted sources.”

For employers, human resources teams and safety leaders, Goplerud encouraged more communication about benefits programs, such as an employee assistance program. Leaders also should encourage more interaction with benefits vendors.

Results of a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll released April 2 show that 19% of more than 1,200 U.S. adults sampled said a concern or worry related to COVID-19 has had a major negative impact on their mental health.

“In an extraordinary time like this, it’s not sufficient for your EAP or your health plan vendor to passively sit back and wait for your employees to find them,” he said. “It’s your responsibility – and your opportunity – to continue to link with your employees, whether they’re working at home, they’re furloughed, they’ve been laid off.”

Sharar said EAPs also can be used to set up critical incident response groups with a facilitator and offer resiliency training for managers.

Positives amid COVID-19

Employers and managers can share honest updates about COVID-19 while also providing a positive outlook for the path forward.

“There’s a real opportunity here for focusing on the positives without minimizing the issues that we’re dealing with,” Levine said. “Having a can-do attitude and the power of positive thinking are needed now more than ever.”

At Nutrien, Horne said some teams are conducting virtual happy hours and birthday parties to maintain some normalcy. The company also has ramped up its charitable donations and provided employees with more volunteer opportunities to help in their communities. “Anything where we can create some of that social interaction that we’ve lost,” Horne said of the events.

In addition, the company has made new communication tools available, such as weekly town halls and webcasts for employees to ask questions and share concerns.

“Our workers want to know that what we do still matters, and they want to feel a sense of purpose,” Horne said. “We can’t change a lot of what’s around us, but we’re focused on what we can control. As leaders, it’s incredibly important that we’re open, we’re transparent and we’re available.”

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