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COVID-19 one year later: The mental and emotional toll on Washington employees

Posted on Mar. 3, 2021 ( comments)

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on America’s workforce. From job and economic worries to the challenges of childcare and virtual work, workers across all industries are struggling. According to a recent study, nearly half of American workers are suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues — a 39 percent jump from just a year ago.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone. As we try to stay healthy, physically distanced, and follow infectious disease guidelines, our social needs are going unfulfilled,” Josh Harrison, PA-C, MultiCare Occupational Medicine Clinical Care Director explains. “Times like this are when everyone needs to feel physically, emotionally, and mentally supported. Without conscious involvement, mental health and substance use issues can go unnoticed.”

Left unchecked, that can translate to increased absenteeism, lost productivity and a higher risk of accidents.

  • Among workers struggling with mental health issues, more than half report it has been affecting their work since the pandemic began.
  • Nearly one in 10 employees have experienced lower productivity or missed work because of addiction or substance abuse.
  • Among workers struggling with addiction or substance abuse issues, more than one-third say it has affected their work more since the pandemic began.
  • One in three survey respondents say half or more of their work time suffers when they are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Understand what employees are going through

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the most common work-related factors that can add stress during the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Concern about the risk of being exposed to the virus at work
  • Taking care of personal and family needs while working
  • Managing a different workload
  • Lack of access to the tools and equipment needed to perform their job
  • Feelings that they are not contributing enough to work or guilt about not being on the frontline
  • Feelings of uncertainty about their job and the economy
  • Learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties
  • Adapting to a different workspace and/or work schedule

The pandemic is weighing especially heavy on women in the workforce. Research shows that more women than men reported adverse mental and physical health effects of the pandemic, and women in the workplace are more likely than men to report not feeling supported by leadership.

Make mental health a priority

Over the last year, the spotlight has been on physical safety in the workplace. Mental health and substance abuse issues may go under the radar, and the stigma around these issues may prevent employees from speaking up. To help employees during these uncertain times, companies and organizations should build a culture of communication, connection and compassion. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.  

  • Promote your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
    • Communicate regularly to employees to ensure they’re aware of your EAP services.
    • Review what your program offers to ensure employees have access to the services and resources they need right now.

  • Check in with workers.   
    • Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins, rather than relying on email
    • Get creative with technology that promote interaction (virtual working sessions and social hours)
    • Focus conversations on how employees are feeling about their work situation versus asking them to disclose a mental/medical condition or other issues

  • Know the signs. Ensure leaders, managers and supervisors know the common warning signs of mental illness, including:
    • Feeling sad/withdrawn for extended periods (two+ weeks)
    • Increased absenteeism or noticeable productivity losses
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Sudden or unpredictable shifts in attitude or mood
    • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs

  • Provide appropriate support. When conversations about employees’ mental wellbeing arise, it’s important to respond appropriately rather than fast-track an issue to HR.
    • Listen actively, refrain from offering a diagnosis and avoid “I know how you feel” comments
    • Reassure employees that what they’re feeling is OK and that the company values and supports them
    • If an employee discloses a mental health condition or substance abuse issue, let them know you’ll work with HR on a plan going forward

  • Communicate effectively and often.
    • Alert employees about COVID-19 updates (using reliable sources), and communicate any work-related changes
    • Provide guidelines on workplace process (i.e., don’t respond to emails after 6 pm, use video calls for discussion, etc.)
    • Allow employees to create a flexible work schedule that works for them, meets their mental health needs and allows time for medical appointments or counseling during working hours

Keep your workforce – and bottom line – healthy

Designed specifically to meet the needs of employers and employees, MultiCare Occupational Medicine provides all the services you need, from employment physicals and screenings to injury and return-to-work care. When additional care is needed, MultiCare Occupational Medicine is connected to all the resources of MultiCare Health System, including one of the largest behavioral health networks in Washington state.

About The Author

MultiCare Occupational Medicine
MultiCare Occupational Medicine provides comprehensive occupational medicine services for employers and employees, including employment physicals and screenings to injury and return to work care.  More stories by this author
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