Webinar: Back to Work? Pay Attention to COVID-Related Stress

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As businesses continue to open their doors for the first time since stay-at-home orders took effect in March, mental health experts caution business owners that the coronavirus – and the stress it creates – must still be taken seriously.

In addition to the pandemic itself, employees coming back to work still have other stressors on their minds, particularly those with children and elderly parents at home, said Larry Moliterno, president and CEO of Meridian Healthcare. Studies show that 49% of employees admit they lose about an hour of daily productivity because of stress, and “I’m sure that number during these times is even higher than that,” he said.

“So there’s this added stress that everybody has at home too because they have the responsibilities at work, but now their responsibilities at home have just doubled and tripled,” Moliterno said. “So I think recognizing that stress too is just very important.”

Business owners aren’t exempt from the stress, Moliterno added. In addition to concern over their own families, business owners have to concern themselves with their employees. As long-term planners by nature, “it’s very difficult to plan for the next six months, two years or three years with all of the uncertainty” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

During a webinar Wednesday, Moliterno joined other members of the Mahoning County Mental Health & Recovery Board and offered their thoughts on how businesses should move forward coming out of the shutdown while keeping the mental health of their employees and customers in mind.

Also participating in the event were Carolyn Givens, vice president for Neil Kennedy Recovery Centers; Joseph Shorokey, CEO of Alta Behavioral Healthcare; and Joseph Caruso, president and CEO of Compass Family and Community Services. Participants discussed possible warning signs that an employee might be dealing with stress and anxiety because of the pandemic and offered ideas on how to help them cope and manage unproductive stress.

The first step, they said, is to acknowledge that stress will be heightened during the pandemic and that any mental illness or substance abuse exacerbated by the stress needs to be addressed, because the workers can overcome them. Failure to do so could cost a company a productive worker.

The 320 employees at Compass were Caruso’s first concern when businesses first started feeling the effects of the pandemic, he said. The company had to lay off some of its employees, including those who work at Youngstown State University.

“I was very fearful,” Caruso said. “I was emotionally stressed about what may happen to the staff and, subsequently, what may happen to the community.”

Companies invest thousands of dollars in training their employees, he said. So participating in an employee assistance program to ensure employees have access to the help they need when they need it to overcome those obstacles will help the company retain those workers.

“And then you’re not back-filling that position,” Caruso said. “Our individual mental health is more important than ever in being able to help ourselves, being able to help our family and friends, and being able to help coworkers so we can come out of this pandemic as successfully together.”

Compass maintains services with Meridian and Neil Kennedy for its own employees, he noted.

Moderator Jeff Leo Herrmann, CEO of the Youngstown Publishing Co., talks with panelists Carolyn Givens, Larry Moliterno, Joseph Shorokey and Joseph Caruso.

Business owners need to realize that the stress and anxiety driven by the pandemic can lead to substance abuse, said Neil Kennedy’s Givens. The stress of working amid COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus, can be heightened for those who already experience anxiety and addiction.

“People are feeling isolated. And so the issues of addiction become exacerbated during periods of high anxiety, fear of the unknown, job losses,” she said.

One of the signs of that increased depression, or even suicide ideation, is if the person feels they are a burden to others, Givens said. If those individuals are isolated or hopeless, that can most likely lead to depression, substance abuse and potentially suicide ideation.

“Depression is not just a single situation. It can be caused through chronic illness and people feeling they are in greater pain,” she said.

Neil Kennedy has established protocols to check in regularly with its staff daily. Recently, the addiction recovery clinic lost a few of its patients to overdoses and illness, she said. As an employer, it’s Givens’ job to listen to the stress and anxiety of her staff who worked with those patients, she said.

The only way to do that, she said, is to create an environment where employees feel they can talk about those things.

“The grief our staff have been stuck with over this period of time has increased,” Givens said. “Having that kind of stress level keeps someone from hitting their A game when they want to.”

In some cases, employers might need to take the first step, said Alta’s Shorokey. Alta provides mental health services for children, adolescents and young adults, and throughout the pandemic, Shorokey and his staff have advised parents to be intentional about communicating with their children about the virus, he said.

“Don’t necessarily wait for them to come to you,” he said.

The same principle can be applied to communicating with employees, he said. If an employer notices a performance problem, he advises them to sit down with the employee and talk to them rather than take a disciplinary approach.

Being afraid to talk to a struggling employee about any potential problems is part of the stigma that mental health advocates are trying to alleviate, he said. “I think it’s absolutely appropriate to ask in the right way,” he said.

“There is a sense of belonging when we’re able to reduce the stigma and offer up choices to people so they can feel good about their choice,” Givens added. “That’s going to strengthen their recovery.”

The panelists suggest employers start by acknowledging the employee isn’t at his A game and ask if something is wrong, then let the employee open up about any issues. From there, the employer can refer the employee to an appropriate service provider.

Some signs to look for are employees becoming socially withdrawn, are quick to anger when they weren’t before or are coming in late to work, Caruso said. If employees were drinking more than usual during the shutdown, employers want to ensure it doesn’t become habitual so those workers can reenter the workforce and be as productive as possible, he said.

The panelists acknowledged that keeping that open environment can be challenging right now, particularly if employees are required to wear masks or other facial coverings while in the workplace.

“About 93% of how we communicate is nonverbal,” so it’s much more difficult to tell where people are coming from because employers can’t read their emotions, Moliterno noted. If someone is quiet and not talking, “those are the ones we need to reach out to the most,” he said.

But, Moliterno cautioned employers not to neglect the ones who come to work on time and do their job well, but may still be feeling anxiety. Checking in with them validates “that these feelings that they have are genuine,” he said.

It’s also important for individuals to try to have some self-awareness too, he said.

“Sometimes we search for temporary distractions to kind of make us not think about this for a while,” Moliterno said. “And sometimes those temporary distractions might be drinking a little too much, might be eating a little too much and doing some of those kinds of things to excess.”

A better way to overcome the uncertainty and stress created by the pandemic is for individuals to establish routines they can control, he said. He offers simple examples, such as getting outdoors to grill after work or reading the newspaper.

“Those are the new rituals we can create so internally we can have some control over a situation that is so uncontrollable,” Moliterno said.

For companies that still have individuals working remotely, employers can be proactive in creating an environment that counters feelings of isolation, Shorokey said. Since those employees don’t get to interact with their coworkers as often, he recommends hosting video conferences every morning to give everyone a chance to communicate what they’re working on.

Along with engaging each employee so they feel like part of the group, being able to see one’s coworkers and talk to them helps build a sense of camaraderie, he says, which keeps them emotionally healthy and productive.

“That’s key for all of us,” Shorokey said.

He also recommended keeping contact with staff who have been furloughed and laid off. Alta has done so with weekly calls and video chats to update those individuals on the company’s status and when they might be able to start bringing people back to work.

“We have to look at this as an opportunity. It really is a chance for us to look at how we do business,” Shorokey said.

All of the panelists said they will likely continue to offer telehealth solutions even after welcoming patients back for in-person appointments. While in-person is still preferred for some, other patients feel more comfortable in their own house on a webcam and can express more than in the office “because they are in their own space,” Caruso said.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.