Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Feelings of anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic have brought mental health concerns to the forefront, and employers are wise to offer resources and support in order to maintain their workforce’s well-being.

Most adults are accustomed to some level of stress surrounding their job. Whether it’s pitching a client, handling a busy rush of customers, learning a new software system or working late to meet a deadline, they occur in a small window of time and feel manageable. However, the prolonged pandemic has introduced new levels of anxiety in the workforce, putting a spotlight on employee well-being and the onus on business owners to provide access to resources. 

How Employees are Feeling
Emotions and anxieties differ from industry to industry and from person to person, especially when comparing essential workers who continued to report to work in person to those who were able to continue their job from home.
 
“People are experiencing fear, uncertainty and extreme disruption and distress with the trifecta of a global pandemic, an economic downturn and a highly charged political and racial justice environment,” says Darcy E. Gruttadaro, JD, director, Center for Workplace Mental Health, a national organization that works with business leaders to improve and prioritize workplace mental health.
 
“Many people have lost jobs or are fearful of losing their jobs. Families are juggling many responsibilities, including full-time jobs, supporting their children in remote learning and keeping everyone safe and healthy,” she continues.
 
Chrissy Magnotta, director of client engagement at Katz/Pierz, an employee benefit advisory organization, says health care workers are a particular group facing unique challenges. “Obviously their lives have been affected more so than maybe some office staff and [jobs] like that, and there’s definitely been a strain on those essential workers who are still going to work every day and either facing things firsthand or having to mitigate through the overall uncertainties that the pandemic has brought.”
 
Additionally, there is the constant worry that health care workers may bring the virus home to their families, says Gruttadaro.
 
Rowan College of South Jersey conducted an employee survey to capture its employees’ thoughts and apprehensions during these unprecedented times, says Coryndi McFadden, executive director, human resources. “The survey’s key findings discovered that the employees were concerned about their health and safety while working on campus, reasonable accommodations and the status of their position during the pandemic,” she says.
 
Employees working from home have had to adjust as well. Those who thrived on the community inside the office may feel a sudden detachment or loneliness. “Some people may enjoy working remotely, although the circumstances during COVID-19 are quite difficult and extremely restrictive. But overall, the risk for many in working remotely over an extended period is isolation, loneliness and disconnection from colleagues and friends,” says Gruttadaro. “If a person is feeling lonely and isolated, they are at risk of developing depression.”
 
Magnotta adds, “It’s not just being isolated [while working from home], but a lot of people have young children at home and they’re being teachers in addition to running their regular, 40-hour-a-week careers. That’s a lot to juggle.”
 
Ways to Provide Support
It’s more important than ever for business owners to take an active role in their employees’ mental health, which has not always been the norm. “In general, companies are trying to understand how to help manage their workforce now that they’re in this new environment. … Employers are trying to be aware of it and trying to understand how they can best help their employees adjust and manage [the situation],” Magnotta says.
 
One of the most formal ways a business can provide support is through an employee assistance program (EAP), used to address personal and work-related problems for employees through counselors. Magnotta says a good portion of Katz/Pierz’s client base did have an EAP product in place, however it was very underutilized.
 
“It was not something employees were necessarily seeking out; it was not something that employers were necessarily promoting all that much. The pandemic has definitely pushed the EAP, the telemedicine and the Teladocs of the world to the forefront of valuable products and programs that employers are rolling out to employees, and employees are actually seeking them from their employers,” she says. “While I would say maybe 60 percent of our clients had an EAP rolled into their programs [before the pandemic], it was underutilized and a lot of employees were not necessarily using it to their advantage. Unfortunately, with the need for mental health support, the therapists themselves have been inundated with a brand-new caseload of patients. So a lot of employees are turning to an EAP or a Teladoc to seek out some health.”
 
Magnotta encourages employers to check with their ancillary carriers on the affordability of an EAP. “If they have disability benefits or life benefits, a lot of times these carriers roll in the EAP for free and they’re not being charged. They just haven’t been utilized in the past. Just being able to effectively communicate that out to employees, making them aware that the program is out there for them and this is how you access it, this is where you can go for help, [is important],” she says.
 
McFadden says RCSJ has offered webinars as a component of its EAP. “Each month human resources partnered with our EAP, Rutgers Behavioral Health, to host webinars with a mental health clinician. Some of the webinar topics were ‘Work-Life and Balance in 2020,’ ‘Well-Being and Self Care,’ and ‘Building Resilience.’ Each month the employees’ participation continues to grow with the assistance of this fantastic program. The employees’ feedback is that they learn how to navigate their emotions and know that they can reach out to our EAP for themselves and anyone who resides in their household,” she says.
 
Telemedicine has become a new norm in health care and access to it specifically for behavioral health has increased dramatically, reports Mike Munoz, market president for AmeriHealth New Jersey. “The pandemic has accelerated the use of telemedicine, which increases access to care and encourages social distancing. Prior to COVID-19, AmeriHealth New Jersey covered the service, but adoption was in the early stage. To give you a sense of how popular it has become, we saw about 80 tele-behavioral health claims in January 2020. By September 2020, that number jumped to more than 3,500,” he says.
 
AmeriHealth New Jersey has been providing telemedicine coverage at no cost for behavioral health, as well as any other service that can be appropriately delivered through video or telephone.
 
The company also launched a dedicated emotional well-being page on its website. Munoz says it provides information on member benefits related to behavioral health, including support and resources for coping with stress and anxiety. “[W]e also offered premium access to an emotional wellness app, Stop, Breathe & Think, at no cost for several months. Stop, Breathe & Think allows users to check in with how they are feeling and recommends short activities and guided meditations based on those emotions,” he says.
 
Virtual resources of all kinds are available, and Magnotta says employers can get creative. “They may not necessarily be able to promote employees going to the gym or being physically active, so there are employers seeking out different avenues such as a virtual exercise class, yoga class or meditation class, something of that sort,” she says. “They are rolling in some virtual platforms for employees to have access to resources that will promote overall well-being. Some employers are purchasing packages that will give employees access to virtual fitness classes since they can’t physically get to the gym and burn off some of that stress. We’re definitely seeing some creative options come down the road dealing with overall wellness and well-being programs.”
 
While some of these mental health resources do come at a cost, there are ways for businesses to access resources for free. For instance, RCSJ developed an educational webinar series for businesses in the region, says Brigette Satchell, dean, career and technical education. “The webinars were offered at no cost to the employers due to funding available through the New Jersey Business and Industry Basic Skills Training program,” she says.
 
Businesses may also be able to access resources through local and state county offices, such as the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Satchell continues.
 
Technology has its advantages, but one of the best—and more traditional—ways to support employees is through personal communication. Gruttadora says business leaders set the tone and should show their door is open.
 
“Having leaders discuss mental health opens the door to employees seeking support and services when it is needed,” she says. “Ensure that managers are regularly checking in through one-on-one meetings with those reporting to them. Be sure that managers are asking how people are doing and really giving them space and time to share the challenges they may face.”
 
Magnotta says a unifying message that we’re all in this together goes a long way. “Whether it be employees who are working on the front lines, manufacturing companies that still have to have their employees come in every day or companies with employees who are completely remote and don’t get to see each other every day, just having that dialogue and sending out that message that we’re all in this together and we’re all learning how to work through this the best way possible,” she says. “Employees really appreciate that, when the employers understand that the employees are in a much different situation than they were a few months ago and having to adapt to all these changes hasn’t necessarily been easy. I think having that open dialogue and that overall culture of support is really helping boost morale, keeping employees informed of what’s available to help them and letting them know that their employers really care about them.”
 
Katz/Pierz’s staff has been fully remote since March, and employees can return to the office on a voluntary basis with protocols in place, says Magnotta. But they have made concerted efforts to keep the collaborative environment alive.
 
“We’re a family-oriented business and we always appreciated the opportunity to work together on a team basis. Our biggest challenge was keeping that team mentality going now that we’re not all in the same office together. We’ve done it in a number of ways, like having scheduled meetings with our teammates and making sure we’re all touching base and just having a meeting to find out some fun things you’re doing in your personal life. It keeps us all together and makes sure communication is flowing,” she says. 

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Ensuring associates at AmeriHealth New Jersey feel connected to one another continues to be a top priority, says Munoz. “We have the tools and support we need to get our jobs done remotely, but we fully recognize everyone has individual circumstances and is juggling a lot every day. At AmeriHealth New Jersey, we have a robust virtual associate engagement program that includes weekly water cooler conversations, virtual bingo and monthly birthday celebrations. These events are well attended and that is because of the support system our associates have fostered within our organization,” he says.
 
 
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 10, Issue 12 (December 2020).

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Author: Liz Hunter

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