By GIGI ACEVEDO-PARKER AND WENDY KING
As the coronavirus pandemic continued its spread over the summer, a University of Central Florida health clinic expanded its outreach to the community with mental health counseling. Through pop-ups, a mobile care lab, 60-minute single counseling sessions and no-cost virtual counseling, UCF Restores has aimed to help those bearing the brunt of COVID care relieve the pressure on their mental well-being.
While UCF Restores has targeted all essential workers, it is especially looking to support healthcare workers, who are stressed and anxious with the non-stop pressure of the pandemic. Plus, as a group, they are less likely than others to share how they are suffering from depression, insomnia and other symptoms of mental stress. As healthcare employers in the Orlando region assess the damage of the pandemic and remedial steps moving forward, the situation makes their best starting point the emotional health of their own professionals.
You might call the pandemic a perfect storm for bringing a worsening issue into sharp focus.
Start with healthcare workers’ emotional health during normal times. Doctors, for example, have a higher suicide rate than any other profession at 28 to 40 per 100,000, or 300 suicides per year. It’s also twice the suicide rate of the general population. Symptoms like depression and anxiety tend to go unaddressed, though. Many won’t admit to the need or to having sought care, because of the potential effect on their licensing, 60 percent of surgeons with recent suicidal ideation admitted.
The pandemic compounded the crisis as healthcare workers faced personal risk with inadequate protective gear, ineffective treatment options and a defeating death. Being hailed as “healthcare heroes” helped to buoy spirits in the early days. But as the virus has continued to gain ground and battles grew over masks, treatments and more, public attitudes began to shift. A distressing number of people, one study found, believed healthcare workers should be isolated from their communities, families and friends as potential “carriers” of the virus. A third of respondents said they avoided healthcare workers for that reason.
It all makes the case. Healthcare employers must act to create support structures that do a better job of bolstering the emotional well-being of their employees. Best in class organizations know its resilience that allows them to achieve and maintain long-term success. But it can’t happen without employee resilience, a critical component necessary for people to be able to bounce back from periods of stress.
An effective strategy to strengthen mental health support systems that improves organizational resiliency must include a framework built on the following components:
- Establish key leadership principles. In looking for solutions to relieve stressors and build resilience, it’s important to establish what principles count in the support program. Setting the bar for a proactive stance is one starting point – that means showing a commitment to promoting positive mental health and well-being, not just delivering interventions. Adopting a “whole person and family first” philosophy is another. Now might be the time to repurpose budgets and re-evaluate traditional voluntary benefit offerings for their suitability to today’s needs.
- Recognize psychosocial stress reactions.Psychosocial stress is often a result of significant changes in the workers’ environment. Employees under pressure may express feelings of being overwhelmed and a sense of helplessness. Loss of normalcy is another indicator. Some may talk about anxiety-induced sleep irregularities. Managers who are attuned to potential issues (and equipped to offer solutions) are in a better position to improve employee satisfaction and maintain organizational productivity over the long term. Psychosocial stress, along with changes/altercations to the worker’s environment can cause mental distress.
- Create a supportive environment.Employers must proactively affirm, through actions and words, their support for employees who are finding it difficult to cope with today’s psychosocial pressures. Barriers to receiving mental health treatment must be systematically dismantled. Policies should be geared toward removing stigma surrounding the professional consequences of seeking treatment. The most effective environments also emphasize the value of compassion. In these extraordinary times, it’s human to feel anxiety or fear, not a sign of weakness or incompetence.
- Physical and financial well-being programs count.The well-documented correlation between mental and physical health makes physical well-being programs important to maintain, and even ramp up. Even before the pandemic, financial pressures played a big role in employee stress and anxiety. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) should be promoted for their emotional and financial wellness resources like financial counseling services.
- About that “family first” focus... Employers who have adopted this sort of holistic thinking should devise a separate support and care strategy to ensure these needs are met and stressors relieved. What resources are available to back up employees with homeschooling and childcare in their communities? What options can help with eldercare? Flexibility on work schedules can provide needed “away” time for mental health days.
- Think about the “right” mental health resources. Each organization is different, requiring a serious look at resources and interventions that best fit the need. Brokers and other consultants can help evaluate the options. At the low-risk end of the intensity spectrum are mindfulness practices to reduce stress. Many free apps are available, too. Coaching and coping is for medium-risk needs, delivered through digital or telephone channels, EAPs, stand-alone resources or in wellness or embedded carrier programs. Therapy is for high-risk situations, or those with clinical indications. Referrals can be made to behavioral health professional services provided through digital means, teletherapy or in person.
The need for resilience, among our people, our communities, and our institutions, has perhaps never been more urgent than it is today. It’s especially urgent to address among our healthcare professionals, who are dealing with unprecedented and unremitting pressure as the pandemic continues to surge. Finding a way to help them come out from the disruption whole is the least these heroes deserve.
Gigi Acevedo-Parker is National Practice Leader – Critical Risk Management, for global insurance brokerage Hub International. She is a nurse executive with more than 30 years as a healthcare clinician, nursing leader, healthcare consultant and educator with a focus on healthcare risk mitigation and patient safety. Gigi has deep experience in many diverse aspects of risk management and compliance, including loss prevention and mitigation, patient safety and quality, claims and litigation management, corporate compliance and privacy.
Wendy King is the Director of Health and Performance for Hub International and a leader in the field of healthcare communications and corporate wellness strategy. She manages HUB’s team of health and performance experts, who provide clients the strategic insight, multi-year plans, and provider resources required to create healthy, high performing organizations.