COVID-19: Tipping point mental health education

By April 23, 2021 No Comments

By Dave Johnson, Phylmar Newsletter Editor

Two of three U.S. workers worked remotely at least part of the work week due to COVID-19 (as of April 2020) according to Clutch, a B2B ratings and review platform.

Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress and stress are reported consequences of working in high-risk jobs and in isolated, abnormal routines in home offices. Female gender, workers under age 40, the presence of pre-existing chronic/psychiatric illnesses, and frequent exposure to social media and news concerning COVID-19 are risk factors associated with distress. Concerns about job security and the prospect of unemployment exacerbate mental health issues.

Vaccinations are alleviating concerns, but as of April, 2021, about one in four Americans don’t want a vaccine, reports National Public Radio. 

Almost half (44 percent) worked from home five days a week in April 2020, up from 17 percent prior to the pandemic. One-third of workers (33 percent) said it’s harder to collaborate with co-workers while working remotely. It is hard for many employees to focus fully on work at home. More than one-quarter (27 percent) said interruptions and distractions is a challenge of remote work.

Cooks, line workers in warehouses, agricultural workers and construction laborers were among the top five occupations that had a higher than 50-percent mortality rate increase during the pandemic, according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco.

Many more workers feel threatened by COVID-19 exposure. In April, 2021, federal OSHA reported 14,559 complaints from workers, and state OSHA plans reported 49,967. In January, February and March, 2021, federal OSHA reported more than 13,000 complaints each month, and state OSHA plans reported more than 43,000 complaints each month.

In an article, “COVID-19: One More Reason to Take Mental Health Seriously,” the author stresses messaging about mental health and resources for support should be shared in standard safety messaging. Employers must strive to reduce the stigma of mental health issues.

Mental health of employees has been on the radar of more businesses in recent years. Workplace violence is one reason. Physical assaults on the job resulted in 20,870 injuries and 454 fatalities in 2019, according to the National Safety Council. After decreasing in 2020, perhaps due to many businesses shuttering, the numbers are “roaring back” in 2021 and look like they could greatly exceed previous years, according to Cass Ben-Levi, Phylmar Academy director.

And more Americans are killing themselves while at work. For the total U.S. population, since 1999 America’s suicide rate has climbed 33 percent in two decades. More than 47,000 people now kill themselves every year, and more than a million attempt to do so, according to an article in the Washington Post.

“Ten years ago, most companies saw suicide as a personal or medical issue, and would say it has nothing to do with work,” said Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, a prevention advocacy group, in the article. 

Now, especially in the wake of the pandemic, more companies are giving safety and health professionals the added responsibility for employee well-being. But without leadership support and involvement from the top of organizations, safety and health pros often face an uphill battle with scant resources. 

Cost is a catalyst for investing in employee well-being, according to a SHRM report. Medical costs rise an estimated 25 percent from age 40 to 50, and an estimated 35 percent from age 50 to 60. The aging workforce contributes to this cost burden, but not as much as employees with risk factors such as smoking, alcohol abuse, migraines, depression, anxiety, obesity, physical inactivity and diabetes.

Compounding the cost issue are the consequences of absenteeism and presenteeism, which affect productivity, quality of work, morale of the entire workforce, employee engagement and employee retention. 

Education and training are key to increasing employee awareness that mental health is indeed a workplace concern, says Ben-Levi. Whether depression, anxiety and other behavioral disorders are caused or exacerbated by work or other life circumstances, mental health is in fact work-related because of its impact on attendance, injury rates, productivity, bullying, discrimination, verbal abuse and physical workplace violence, according to Ben-Levi.

The Phylmar Academy is in the early stages of developing a series of modules on mental health in the workplace. 

Substance use and abuse, including prescription medications, alcohol, and now legal marijuana are particularly troublesome to businesses if the workers are driving forklifts, cars, trucks, using machinery, working at heights, working with energized equipment or in confined spaces.

Training begins with raising general awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, the effect of COVID-19 fears, and the need to dispel age-old stigmas about not being open and talking about mental health. 

Having open discussions about mental health at work is one thing, taking action if necessary is another. You cannot always see mental health distresses. People are very good at hiding disorders, showing up for work on time, appearing fit, and performing up to expectations. Training must emphasize co-workers and supervisors cannot over-step their expertise, make assumptions or jump to conclusions. Interventions by lay people need to be limited, reasonable, and empathetic. If one senses or sees a co-worker suffering or struggling, limited probing and listening can be a first step. 

Training should equip management and employees with resources to offer if needed. The National Association of Mental Illness provides in-depth information on anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and Mental Health America. These organizations maintain support group locators. NAMI also offers a crisis text line – text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor for free 24/7 crisis support via text message. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) connects to a trained counselor 24/7.

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