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During ordinary times, challenges ranging from family difficulties to depression or anxiety to financial woes may accompany someone to the workplace on any given day. The extraordinary and long-lasting circumstances accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic have created a never-before-seen level of stress for many people.

Throughout the past several months, individuals have had to adjust rapidly to monumental changes in both their work and personal lives. Adapting to that level of disruption often creates uncertainty and distress, says Catherine Langdon, a counselor for ThedaCare Behavioral Health.

“Anytime that things don’t seem to be standard or what you’re used to, it’s going to cause stress. Any change causes stress, good or bad,” she says.

At work, those changes may include needing to work different hours, completing a screening process upon entering the workplace, wearing a mask and remaining farther apart from co-workers. Beyond that, workers in positions in industries including manufacturing, health care, retail and the service industry often have to report to the workplace while others on their team may work remotely.

“Those individuals don’t get a choice to work from home. I do think there is some resentment,” says Julie Preder, executive director of Mental Health America in Sheboygan County, an affiliate for the national organization that provides mental health education tools and training as well as working for public health reform and doing advocacy work.

While those working from home may not face worries about getting sick on the job, they had to adapt to a different set of circumstances. Remote workers may have to balance work with overseeing virtual schooling. Many also experience feelings of isolation and struggle to create clear boundaries between their workday and personal time, Preder says.

Outside of work life, individuals face still more stressors, which can include anxiety about getting sick, caring for oneself or a loved one who’s ill, child or elder care challenges, food insecurity and job loss. In addition, these new stresses only compound issues that already existed for people pre-pandemic, Preder says.

“The amount of stress and the impact of what this is going to look like years down the road, we really don’t know,” she says. “We are preparing right now for another pandemic, which is a global psychological crisis.”

As of late November, Mental Health America in Sheboygan County had seen a 300 percent increase in demand for services over last year at the same time. In 2019, the organization completed around 300 screenings, and as of Nov. 30, it had done 1,000 in 2020.

Long-term stress can lead to depression symptoms, trouble sleeping, changes in appetite that can cause weight loss or gain, headaches and health maladies such as hypertension, Langdon says. 

Mental health problems in the workplace can lead to a loss of productivity and absenteeism, which can prove costly. Businesses invest a lot in employees, and if they put workers in high-stress situations on a regular basis without giving them the tools they need to cope, they risk losing people or having them call in sick more often, Preder says.

Cultivating care

At Bassett Mechanical in Kaukauna, President and CEO Kim Bassett says the company has navigated the challenge by remaining open and flexible to the ever-changing landscape. The manufacturer has implemented policies that are adaptable to unique circumstances while also enforcing expectations including mask wearing and social distancing. 

“As an organization, we try to get out in front of any potential issues by communicating often and setting expectations. We also want to show our associates that we care and that we’re here to help them,” Bassett says.

Bassett Mechanical leaders recognize the many challenges associates may face right now, which can include concerns for their own health and well-being, worry for loved ones at high risk, virtual learning challenges and child care facilities closing. It’s vital to acknowledge adversity and look at each individual situation with empathy and compassion and remain flexible to adjustments, Bassett says. 

It’s also helped for the team to “rally around something bigger than themselves.” That’s included providing nearly 18,000 nose clips for face masks that were given to front-line workers, helping create an emergency deployable medical unit to provide a clean and comfortable environment for hospital and clinic overflows, hosting an onsite blood drive and donating $25,000 to nonprofit organization LEAVEN.

In addition to leaders, Bassett Mechanical has designated associates as go-to resources for COVID-related questions. Knowledge helps people feel empowered and the company remains dedicated to ongoing education, Bassett says.

Strategies like the ones Bassett Mechanical has put in place work, says Preder, whose organization has seen an increase in demand for workplace mental health training since the pandemic began. While it’s important to have caring leaders, it also helps to have peers, or “mental health champions,” who can help those who are struggling and keep their eyes open to identify those who may need help.

Langdon says maintaining a culture of openness and transparency also is vital, including if the company is going through financial difficulties. Employers should let workers know what’s driving decision-making.

“If you’re not being open about why decisions are being made, people are going to fill in the blanks and it might not be accurate, which can impact your workplace engagement. If you don’t have happy employees, you don’t have good work getting done,” she says.

On a personal level, people can use coping strategies such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, challenging negative thoughts and practicing radical acceptance, which calls for individuals acknowledging difficulties but also knowing they have the skills to get through them, or the opportunity to seek help if needed, Langdon says. It’s also vital to get adequate sleep, proper nutrition and physical activity, she says.

It’s worthwhile to invest in employee mental health, whether through implementing strategies, conducting training or putting in place — and encouraging the use of — employee assistance programs that offer a certain number of counseling sessions, Preder says.

“We know when we have those culture shifts that people thrive — employers and employees — and in the end the bottom line thrives,” she says. 

Handle with care

While nearly everyone is experiencing increased stress on the job stemming from the pandemic, front-line health care workers face a unique set of challenges.

Jackie Anhalt, chief nursing officer for ThedaCare, says the demand of caring for COVID-19 patients — and the accompanying emotional toll — is putting stress on nurses and other health care workers, and there’s no end in sight for the crisis. 

“We’re all trained to work in stressful situations. I think it’s the longevity that is probably something that we couldn’t have been prepared for,” she says.

In addition to increased stressors at work, staff members face challenges in their personal lives. Anhalt relates the story of a nurse who contracted the virus. As she convalesced, she and her husband couldn’t work and she had to seclude herself from her children at home. After she recovered, the nurse couldn’t wait to get back to work and care for patients, even though her physical exhaustion remained. 

Anhalt says that’s the nature of caregivers. They will keep giving even when they’re depleted, but the trauma they’re experiencing also is accumulating, and it’s something ThedaCare and other health systems will need to address long term.

Many people wonder how best to help health care workers. In addition to individuals doing their part to stop the spread, Anhalt says gestures of gratitude do make a difference.

“It does seem like some of the ‘You’re the heroes’ has faded away, but it’s not fading away here. It’s the little stuff that fills our bucket,” she says. “I want to tell people, stick with us a little longer. We still need that encouragement.”