How to help them help you

Support employees during the long haul of COVID-19

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy

COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink how we work. In this new setting, what can Whatcom County employers do to promote best work practices for their employees and their companies?

A handful of mental health experts in Whatcom County — who also manage businesses and employees — gathered via Zoom recently to share tips on how employers can support employees during COVID-19. The virtual forum was part of the Whatcom COVID-19 Employer Support Task Force.

Read on to find ideas and techniques for keeping your employees healthy, happy and productive. Sources include Karen King, a licensed mental health counselor and CEO of King Health Associates, with 24 employees in two Bellingham locations; Sterling Chick, vice chair of Whatcom County’s Public Health Advisory Board and regional clinical director of Catholic Community Services, a western Washington nonprofit with 3,600 employees (250 in Whatcom County); Linda Grant, mental health court program manager for the Whatcom County Health Department; Pamela Wheeler, human resources director for the Opportunity Council, a local nonprofit with 320 employees; and Debby Cwalina, senior human resources manager at the Opportunity Council.

Frequent and clear communication
COVID-19 is a health, economic and social crisis all at once, said Sterling Chick of CCS. “Think of it as a siege,” he said. “It crept up on us. It’s restricted our movements; it’s blocked our escape by plane or even driving north by car. We go out at our own risk.”

Employees want certainty in an uncertain world, Chick said. Employers can offer employees frequent and clear communication. “CCS, like everyone, was caught off guard at first. Our staff wanted answers, and they wanted them in writing. We have a big organization, part of it unionized. We came up with a COVID response, 150 pages long. That’s too much for most staff, but managers and supervisors were to digest and relay that.

“Early on, our staff wanted to know about masks, hand sanitizer, plastic shields. We struggled at first to get them answers, and that added to their stress.”

As in a siege, employers can expect a prolonged period of stress.

“COVID fatigue is real and will affect our work for a long time,” Chick said.

Frequent and clear communication at CCS takes the form of a systemwide newsletter, sent via email twice a week at first and less frequently now. It also consists of managers meeting twice weekly to discuss employees’ needs; an internal online meditation, named Nourishing, now weekly; and at one point in the larger organization — because some staff had sick or dying family members — a grief support group.

CCS changed from face-to-face counseling to telehealth counseling in the space of a weekend, which required intensive communication with employees. That change to telehealth had to happen fast, or CCS employees would lose touch with the families they counsel, Chick said. Technology needs had to be met quickly.

Communication with employees included promoting Washington Listens, a state government support line open to all, and sharing information about what the Employee Assistance Program could offer, how to conduct self-care, initial extra pay for front-line staff, and available extra supervision via text, chat apps, phone calls and video conferencing.

“A couple of our sites have a virtual lunch nearly every day,” Chick said. “Those have been going really well. It’s important for employees to talk to each other directly, without going through a supervisor.”

These virtual lunches offer opportunities for employees to share jokes, have fun and tell success stories from the families they counsel.

After the pandemic hit and CCS shifted to video counseling, the number of billings has increased slightly, Chick said. Reduced school schedules and less staff transportation likely play a role.

“We were surprised,” Chick said. “We have more connections with families than we had before. It’s all about being able to do the job that our employees came to CCS to do.”

You’re in it with them
These times are uncertain, said Karen King of King Health Associates. “What happens when humans are uncertain? We go back to instinctual responses, usually fear.”
Fear is the crux of mental health challenges we’re seeing in ourselves and our employees, King said.

Employers are supporting employees at the same time they’re going through the crisis themselves, King said. Think of this example from airplane flights: People should put on their own oxygen masks first, then help others. Employers can best support team members when leaders are getting the help they need too.

Recognize that humans are resilient and have survived crises in the past, such as 9/11, King said. Recognize that it’s going to get worse, but then it will get better.

“It’s not if your employees are going to get stressed and have mental health challenges, it’s when,” King said. Employers can put a plan in place for that. Nearly 18% of Americans experience anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A March 2020 survey by the mental health company Total Brain reported that 35% of American workers said COVID-19-induced anxiety was interfering with their workplace productivity.

Consider that a third of your staff may experience diagnosable anxiety during the pandemic, King said. “That’s an important backdrop.”

Those most at risk are on the front lines — people in grocery stores, workers in health care and people caring for children or elders. Employers can acquaint themselves with their employees’ situations to better help, King said. Be watchful for irritability, lateness or isolation. Understand that employees might be using negative coping skills, such as increased drinking.

National alcohol sales (retail, not restaurants or bars) increased 16% during the early months of the pandemic, according to the market research giant Nielsen. Hard liquor showed the biggest increase, at 27%, with wine increasing 14% and beer/cider increasing 12%.

Employers can show a little vulnerability themselves, King said. When employees know you’re in it with them, that makes a difference. The Google research program Project Aristotle has shown that Google’s most productive teams had a leader who was empathetic and vulnerable.

Employers can create pathways for employees to communicate, King said. At her business, those pathways include virtual lunch meetings at her desk Mondays and Thursdays. “Everyone can just drop by. We make it comfortable, with music on and my pets in the background. I can hear how my counselors are doing.”

Employees may be fearful for their jobs or family members, King said. “Small employers may not have HR, but make sure there’s a method in place for them to come talk to you.”
Employers can give more short-term projects to boost a sense of accomplishment and provide as much predictability in scheduling as possible.

Use the right language
Linda Grant of the Whatcom County Health Department said that even employees with good coping skills can be overwhelmed by a prolonged siege such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers may notice a difference in work performance or emotional reactions.
Employers can avoid off-limits vocabulary when talking to employees, Grant said. Don’t use the words “depression” and “anxiety,” which could be construed as meddling in an employee’s medical issues.

“Use softer words, such as ‘you’re looking stressed’ or ‘I don’t see you using your usual great skills,’” Grant said. “HR or EAP may be a help to you here.”

Recognize that some people handle tough times via denial, which may manifest itself in resistance to masks and other precautions, Grant said. People’s subconscious response to crisis may be “If it’s not there, I don’t have to feel anxious or afraid.”

If that becomes extreme, it falls to the employer to tell team members that they must follow precautionary measures along with everyone else.

Be timely
The 320 employees at the Opportunity Council, a local nonprofit serving homeless and low-income citizens, had already developed systems for coping with and supporting Whatcom County’s most vulnerable, said Pamela Wheeler, senior human resources director. Those skills once helped their own co-workers de-stress too. COVID-19 changed that; co-workers and managers were no longer immediately available in person.

“We worked diligently to respond to (employee) questions and concerns,” Wheeler said. “When they saw over time that we were consistent in our behaviors to protect them, they began to calm down.”

Part of the Opportunity Council’s COVID-19 response to employees was to offer additional health leave throughout the year.

Employers can be timely with information, Wheeler said.

An example of that was early dissemination of cloth masks, said Debby Cwalina, senior human resources manager at the Opportunity Council. Employees gain confidence when they know “my employer is paying attention, my employer cares about us, my employer wants to remain engaged,” she said.

Cwalina said the Opportunity Council is happy to share resources and information with area employers.

Opportunity Council employees work across five counties. The pandemic has created different stressors for a counselor who goes into a residential facility, a preschool teacher trying to work on Zoom, or a worker conducting to the homeless. A key response to mounting employee stress has been communication. But the information flowing from federal and state government was too much, Cwalina said.

“We digest, then provide our employees with one-page summaries on an internal COVID website, or we send a short email with an update. They’re getting the information they need, and we’re not pushing legal or compliance jargon.”

In this new world of COVID-19, employers and employees alike want an exit strategy. But, King said, “we are in pandemic soup and there’s no exit from the pot so far. One major coping skill that mental health professionals teach their clients is that everything will pass.”

Even if we don’t yet know when or how.