Now entering a second year, the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend lives, with some employers stepping up to help workers deal with problems like anxiety and sleep disorders.
Redwood Credit Union, a Santa Rosa-based business with more than 700 employees, over the past year has seen about a 30% increase in employees reaching out for help through the company’s confidential employee assistance program, said Kristina Derkos, senior vice president of people.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, over the last year since the pandemic broke out, 4 in 10 adults across the country have reported symptoms of anxiety and depression — up from 1 in 10 adults the year before. Ill effects reported by the foundation in July included difficulty sleeping (36%) or eating (32%), increases in alcohol consumption or substance use (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%).
Included in Redwood Credit Union’s self-care and stress-management programs for staff is training for managers on how to de-escalate, respond and be an empathetic leader in sensitive situations.
“Really, education is so paramount,” said Derkos.
RCU also has taught its managers how to effectively handle a discussion with an employee who chooses to disclose a mental health condition.
“We do very specific training for them (about) having an open-ended conversation where they are there to listen, provide comfort and help partner with the employee, because the employee has to also meet us — we can’t do all the work for them,” Derkos said. “So we really train our managers to take this extremely seriously and we teach them to be very transparent.”
Employee assistance programs — often part of a company’s benefits package — also includes guidance about management training for crisis situations.
“A lot of employers don’t realize that usually written into the (EAP) contract is management training and support for crisis situations,” Derkos said.
That includes help for supervisors who may be impacted by trying to help a worker in distress. “The managers aren’t mental health experts or superheroes, and it’s OK to be nervous in these conversations,” she said.
From a consultant’s desk
Employees who come forward about feeling mentally strained may need some time off, a reduced schedule or something more, according to Brenda Gilchrist, co-founder and partner at The HR Matrix LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Santa Rosa.
“If needed, employers can determine if a medical leave option is available and/or warranted, and determine the appropriate leave time that is required by law and within their published policies,” Gilchrist said. “In lieu of leaves (or) accommodations, we feel this is a time we all need to pull together and be supportive, as much as possible.”
Beyond the caregivers
NorthBay Healthcare Group, which operates two hospitals in Solano County, saw a 9% to 10% increase in the number of employees who took a leave of absence last year, according to Jim Anderson, vice president of human resources. The spike occurred from March 2020 through the summer.
“We realized early on that everyone — not just the frontline workers — were feeling anxiety and were impacted by the pandemic,” Anderson said.
The health care system operates NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield and NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville, as well as primary care and specialty practices within the county. NorthBay has more than 2,600 employees, not including physicians.
“We focused on ensuring our teams recognize the signs of stress, which are usually trouble sleeping, outbursts of anger, wanting to be alone, having difficulty communicating or listening,” Anderson said. “It truly did escalate during this pandemic and, in fact, it still is.”
The majority of NorthBay’s administrative and back-office staff work on-site, and support staff who work behind-the-scenes can work from home, but few have chosen to do so, said Steve Huddleston, vice president of public affairs.
Soon after the pandemic began, NorthBay’s HR staff created a central cache of resources for its employees, including an enhanced EAP process specifically for COVID-19 anxiety related to work and at home, such as stress from children not being in school and daycare centers being closed, Anderson noted.
The health care organization also turned to its internal resources for help.
Corinna Press, clinical psychologist and medical director of NorthBay’s integrated mental health team, produced a series of videos addressing mental health and another series called “Tips for Coping with COVID Anxiety.” Cardiologist Mil Dhond made videos demonstrating techniques for coping, using meditation and yoga.