Stay Attuned to Workers' Stress Levels, Advises NIOSH Scientist

By John Egan October 16, 2020

​Just as employers are screening onsite workers for symptoms of the coronavirus, they also should monitor employees for signs of pandemic-induced stress, a federal health official said Oct. 9 during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webinar.

While some employees might be excited about going back to the workplace, others might be scared, said Brenda Jacklitsch, a health scientist in the education and information division of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and coordinator of the NIOSH Small Business Assistance Program.

"For many of us, this pandemic experience has stirred up a lot of big emotions and fears. We're feeling additional stress and have additional worries and concerns," Jacklitsch said in response to a question posed by webinar moderator Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer.

Returning employees might be anxious about being around colleagues or customers who could be infected with the coronavirus, Jacklitsch said. Or they could be uneasy about pandemic-era changes in office etiquette. They might even feel guilty about dropping their children off at school or a day care center to head back to the workplace.

Whatever the cause of employees' concerns, employers should be on the lookout for signs of stress among workers who are coming back. These could include irritation, anger, uncertainty, nervousness, anxiety, tiredness and lack of motivation, she said. "Some of these employees may be sad or depressed. They may have trouble concentrating."

To help employees cope with stress and related issues, Jacklitsch recommended:

  • Making sure they know how to access employer-provided mental health resources.
  • Emphasizing the importance of logging enough hours of sleep, taking workday breaks, getting exercise and other ways of heading off stress.
  • Encouraging them to end each workday at the same time.
  • Sharing facts about COVID-19, including prevention tips and risk factors.

"Talk openly with employees about how the pandemic is affecting work. Expectations should be communicated clearly by everyone," she said.

"Remind your employees that everyone is in an unusual situation with limited resources," she added. "Connect with your employees. Encourage them to talk with someone they trust about their concerns and how they are feeling. And look for ways to offer support, especially if you have employees who are showing signs of stress, such as depression and anxiety."

Jacklitsch said one of her greatest concerns about employees returning to the workplace after working remotely is the toll that stress, fatigue and depression have taken on them during the pandemic.

"You may have no idea how your employees have been coping while working remotely," she said.

A survey conducted in July for insurance company MetLife underscores the importance of paying attention to the mental state of employees: 38 percent of U.S. workers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. A survey done in June by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came up with a similar finding: 40 percent of U.S. adults said they had struggled with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Despite those realities, one-third of employers questioned in a separate MetLife survey didn't consider improvement of their workers' mental well-being to be an important objective.

Moving from mental health to physical health, Jacklitsch said onsite temperature checks of employees are an option. But, she added, they're not entirely effective because they won't detect infections among workers who are showing mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. She noted that temperature screenings shouldn't be a substitute for social distancing and other preventive measures.

If workplace temperature checks are in place, be sure an employee's temperature is below 100.4 degrees and that they're not experiencing any COVID-19-related symptoms before letting them into the workplace, she said. Symptoms include appearing fatigued and having flushed cheeks.

Jacklitsch added that if an employer decides to administer COVID-19 tests at work, a viral test might be useful in detection and prevention of the coronavirus. That test shows whether someone is currently infected with the virus. But a COVID-19 antibody test shouldn't affect a decision about whether an employee should come back to the workplace, she said. That's because the antibody test can reveal if someone had a past infection, but not a current one.

Jacklitsch recommended that employers use the CDC's Resume Business Toolkit to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the workplace.

As the U.S. keeps waging a battle against the coronavirus, Jacklitsch said, employers should also promote prevention of the flu among employees. In this country, the height of flu season stretches from December to February. The CDC estimates that the 2018-19 flu season sickened 35.5 million Americans and led to 34,200 deaths.

Jacklitsch explained that during the pandemic, Americans have decreased their use of preventive health care services, including vaccinations. As such, employers should remind employees about the importance of getting a flu shot, she said, and perhaps even offer shots at an onsite clinic or in conjunction with local health care providers.

"For the upcoming flu season, flu shots will be very important to reduce the impact of respiratory illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.

John Egan is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.



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