Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, employees continue to face a myriad of stressors, including health anxiety, isolation, financial concerns, family issues and increased workloads. This prolonged stress is impacting sleep, energy and motivation, while driving a heightened demand for mental-health services and medication.
“If you think of a classic disaster, . . . [like] an earthquake or a flood, it comes, but then relatively quickly, it goes,” said Timothy Foggin, Canadian medical director at Teladoc Health, during a Benefits Canada Live webinar sponsored by Teladoc earlier this month.
“You prepare for it. When it happens, you respond. And then you recover. Here, with a pandemic, we are preparing, responding, recovering, all at the same time — and repeat and repeat and repeat. . . . A pandemic [is the] mother of all disasters, in the strain it can have.”
Recent smaller-scale health crises — the severe acute respiratory syndrome and H1N1 flu pandemics — had long-term mental-health impacts for those who lived through them and have demonstrated the clear need for employers to help employees engage with healthy coping strategies, said Diana Velikonja, president of the Ontario Psychological Association, also speaking during the webinar.
“Toronto was particularly affected [by SARS] . . . [and] you could see, even in four or five years after, in studies, there were large percentages of individuals who were still affected with regard to their behaviour.”
The assumption that the pandemic will end and life will quickly return to normal in a V-curve concept has given people the mental justification for engaging in maladaptive coping strategies, she noted. Indeed, a large survey of about 6,000 Canadians and 6,000 U.S. residents found the majority were adopting unhelpful strategies such as excessive alcohol and cannabis use. Adaptive strategies — seeking medical attention or mental-health resources or exercising — were the least-used coping strategies among respondents.
Further, Velikonja referred to an April survey by Teladoc, which found more than 50 per cent of respondents — including those who were younger — reported experiencing a negative mental-health impact from the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of the important things [for employers] is to encourage healthy habits,” she said. “That kind of messaging, particularly from a managerial perspective, is very important in workplaces that we’re not going to just pop back up the way things were. . . . We’re looking at some longer-term flexibility and changes.”
Left unaddressed, these changes and stresses could result in clinical mental-health issues and a higher risk of health issues such as heart attacks, strokes, obesity and premature death, noted Velikonja.
The Teladoc survey found employers have risen to the occasion, with about 40 per cent adding services to address employee mental health and 90 per cent of those services virtual to increase accessibility. Multiple surveys on the usefulness of virtual care have shown respondents appreciate the ability to address their concerns at times that are convenient for them and access care more easily, she said, noting evidence has demonstrated virtual-care users do report improvements similar to in-person treatment.
Beyond virtual health support, Velikonja suggested that employers encourage employees to discuss their mental health more openly, using conversational guides to normalize the conversation. “Employees understanding that that ability exists and that it’s supported through the workplace is a significantly important concept.”
For employers with staff returning to the workplace, clear and consistent health and safety rules will help to ease a significant point of anxiety. However, she noted, employees won’t have the same perception of their own risk. “Understanding individuals’ level of anxiety with regard to health and contracting the virus will tell you a lot about how compliant they’re going to be. [Employers should be] helping people to understand that it’s not just about how they feel in terms of whether they feel they’re low-risk . . . [but] that it’s about the safety of the entire environment and everyone.”
Velikonja also suggested employers encourage staff to make time for regular physical activity given its correlation with mental health, keep a healthy diet, get an appropriate amount of sleep, surround themselves with positive supports and messaging to counteract what can be a barrage of stressful news and use relaxation techniques in times of stress.