It’s When, Not If, Employees Will Feel the Stress of COVID-19

Health care workers, parents, teachers are all feeling the strain

By Cheryl L. Serra April 30, 2020
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stressed worker holding neck

​HR staff should assume employees who are working during COVID-19 are feeling the strain of the pandemic rather than trying to determine if they have telltale signs of stress, said Ashley Swinson.

Swinson, founder of TIDE Associates, PLLC in Wilmington, N.C., is a licensed clinical social worker. She speaks nationally, recently presenting on burnout prevention in a virtual conference for AMDA—The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine. In her former practice, she also handled HR functions.

And regardless of why her clients came to her in a pre-COVID-19 world, COVID is very much on their minds these days.

They "are actively processing the impact of COVID-19, whether it's the fear of the illness itself, or the impact of being socially isolated, the impact of loss of control over what's happening in the world … this is coming up in every session that I'm having with clients."

HR professionals who manage essential workers—whether they're front-line hospital staff, employees who provide housekeeping functions in health care organizations, people who stock supermarket shelves or teachers who seemingly overnight had their professional and personal lives merged—will need to be vigilant to see which employees might need additional support and resources, Swinson said.

Tracy Smith, RN, is director of adult inpatient services at Gracepoint Wellness, which provides mental and physical wellness services in Tampa. On a recent day, staff tended to a patient who had a medical emergency. Minutes later, when they were charting the case, a nurse on the team received a phone call from her daughter, who was at home, struggling with a school lesson. Later, two staff members involved in the medical emergency cried, something they'd never done before. These events, she said, illustrate a never-before-experienced time for many employees, one rife with stressors.

There are financial challenges. Employees are working long hours to cover for sick colleagues or run additional shifts. There's uncertainty about the economy. Essential workers are concerned they'll get the virus and bring it home to family members. The work environment and mandates change every day.

"It's a multilayer issue," Smith said. "It isn't just the stress of the virus, it's the impact of all of this. There are moments of it being overwhelming, even for individuals with the best of coping skills."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Online Learning, All of a Sudden

It's important for HR professionals to understand these stressors and try to help lift employees' load. For instance, many students across the country have traded their classrooms for their bedrooms to finish out the school year. But not all these students are thriving in their new environment. Smith suggests HR provide resources for parents and students to get extra help, if possible. Lists of available tutoring services will be helpful, too.

The technology required of the new schools is another stressor for parents who aren't tech-savvy. A simple software update can make even the mightiest home-office warrior shudder, so imagine what it's like for a novice. Try to provide resources to help with the technology.

Valaida Wise is a Washington D.C.-based educational consultant specializing early childhood education. She's currently consulting to schools across the country and said there an oft-repeated theme.

"While teachers are being incredibly creative, this has been a very heavy lift," she said.

"Many teachers had less than 10 days to completely change their way of teaching, going from 100 percent in person to 100 percent online. Many had to take part in intensive training to get prepared, others had no training and had to go out on their own. The difficulty of this change can't be minimized."

"School leaders and school HR professionals are concerned about burnout and they should be," she said. "During my more than 20 years as a school leader, teacher burnout was a constant concern. The field of education is a high touch and very emotional work normally, but that concern is now 20-fold."

Bright Spots

While it's stressful, there are also many innovations coming out of the situation, according to Gracepoint's Smith. There is more collaboration and information sharing between medical providers, and they're planning together more. She's implemented a texting/communications tool to ensure staff receive timely, pertinent information; they're often too busy to check their e-mail for the regular updates and changes. She said she also tries to focus staff on the fundamentals of their job while she keeps an eye out on underlying stressors that may distract them.

All of Gracepoint's 620 employees are monitored for physical health when they come to work, and supervisors, many of whom are trained clinicians, keep an eye on their mental health, as well.

April Teamer, Gracepoint HR director, said that because staff are being asked to stay in the building once they're checked in, HR provides a meal each shift for them.

Teamer formerly served as a director for the state of Florida where she performed many HR functions. Her background in counseling, specifically crisis counseling, is helpful.

She has never experienced what she's seen since the pandemic. Even in planning for hurricanes, she said, there's a warning; you know it will hit and you then have to address the damage it may have left behind. There's an end date, unlike the situation with COVID-19.

Professionals in HR play a critical role during times like this. In addition to staying on top of unemployment and loan and payment-deferment programs, try to stay aware of staff's concerns and address them.

For instance, Gracepoint staff were fearful of running out of protective masks, so a training room at the health care facility was turned into a sewing room where volunteers are making masks.

"This is done to alleviate the stress and to empower them to serve patients," Teamer explained.

Gracepoint also recently initiated a negative 40-hour PTO bank. If staff needs to take time off and they've used all their PTO, they can use 40 hours more than they have. They also started a leave- donation program.

For those departments that had to shut down because they couldn't function while maintaining social distance, Teamer has reassigned the workers to other departments for which their skill set is a fit.

Be Aware of These Signs

Some signs that someone might need help are acting out of character, being edgy or emotional, or not wanting to do a job they're good at or typically enjoy. Sometimes the remedy is as simple as taking some time off and going outside.

HR can help figure out what resources are available to help them address these feelings, Swinson said. Since so many mental health providers have turned to telehealth, HR can do some of the legwork, finding out what insurance is accepted and the ease with which employees could speak to someone. Employers could offer a space in their building where employees could jump on a call with an employee assistance program.

"HR would be pretty pivotal in carving out that path, to advocate for their employees to get their needs met more immediately," she said.

"It's just crazy times right now," she said of the pandemic. "The hard answer is you're not going to feel good about the work you're doing right now. You are going to suffer and struggle, and we have to learn how to suffer well together and get real creative about what supportive resources look like."

Cheryl L. Serra is a freelance writer in Southport, N.C.

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