A mental health crisis is unfolding in the workplace. COVID-19 and racial injustice are to blame

Gitte Klitgaard experienced déjà vu recently while taking bacon and eggs from her freezer to thaw for breakfast the next day.

“Wait, I just did that?” she asked herself, thinking she had done exactly the same thing earlier in the day. Or maybe it was the week before. It was hard to tell because her days were becoming indistinguishable from each other.

As Klitgaard thought about it, she realized she was having more of these surreal moments ever since shelter-in-place rules went into effect in her country, Switzerland, in March. Working from home day in and day out because of the coronavirus pandemic was taking a mental toll on Klitgaard, a software development consultant and regular speaker at tech conferences.

Her days were becoming more repetitive, blurring into a loop, akin to what Bill Murray’s character in the 1990s movie Groundhog Day experienced, minus the jokes. “I was shocked when I started counting and realized I had been home for eight weeks,” Klitgaard says. “I would have guessed four or five. Days are blending together.”

Klitgaard’s feeling of monotony is becoming increasingly common for workers who are still under shelter-in-place orders, according to several mental health experts. Additionally, people are more likely to feel hopeless, that there’s nothing they can do to stop the deadly virus that has claimed over 350,000 lives globally.

Adding to the coronavirus fears are concerns about rising unemployment that has created an economic crisis rivaled only by the Great Depression. Economic malaise coupled with prolonged isolation and uncertainty about when the pandemic will end has led the health care foundation Well Being Trust to estimate that roughly 75,000 Americans may die from so-called deaths of despair, the suicides and overdoses from alcohol or illicit drugs.

The unrest in cities across the country following the death of a black Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, while in police custody, is compounding the problem. The violence and destruction, coupled with concerns about racial equality and police bias, can make people feel unmoored.

“It was already so much. COVID was already so challenging for everyone,” says Michael Boroff, a behavioral health program manager at the health care firm Crossover Health. “We are already hearing from our therapists that this is the focus from their sessions—this has made things even harder for people.”

Underlying racial tensions have long been the “elephant in the room,” Boroff says. Communities of color have been dealing for decades with the trauma that comes from racial inequality. Adding to the trauma is that COVID-19 appears to be hitting communities of color even harder, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some of the struggles for nonminority communities include dealing head-on with serious issues of race that they may not have otherwise tackled, he explained.

“We are also being confronted with facing our privilege head-on and reckoning with that,” Boroff says. “It’s a very hard process, but it’s a very necessary one.”

The expected mental health crisis underscores an important role companies play in providing employees with social connections and feelings of self-worth and belonging. As Well Being Trust chief strategy officer Benjamin Miller says, “Companies can create a psychologically healthy workplace, where people can feel taken care of and feel safe.” 

As unemployment continues to balloon, Miller says that the already intense social isolation people feel could magnify, leading to self-destructive behaviors. Work “sets good boundaries” for people, Miller says, explaining that “we don’t drink at noon.” Losing one’s job essentially means losing those boundaries, which could lead to more people habitually drinking to deal with their anxiety.

“We joked about quarantinis,” Miller says. “Now it’s much less funny—alcohol is a real issue for a lot of people.”

Workers are experiencing real, prolonged trauma

Alison Holman has been studying trauma for the past three decades, researching how society copes with distressing events and the physical damage those events create in the human body, leading to heart problems and other disorders. Although the coronavirus pandemic has been around only for a few months, Holman, an associate professor in nursing at the University of California at Irvine, believes that “it is the worst event of my lifetime, and I think the worse event of many people’s lifetimes.”

Unlike tragedies like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings, the coronavirus pandemic is a “chronic stressor” with “numerous secondary stressors,” says Holman.

“You lose your job or you’re told to work from home, so what do you do?” Holman says. “You’re homeschooling your kids, running a full-time household, trying to stay safe while getting groceries—the stress is just remarkable.

“This pandemic is a very, very serious threat to the health and well-being of our country,” Holman says.

Indeed, Andrew Potter, the founding partner of business software startup TileFive, believes trauma caused by the coronavirus pandemic is akin to that of the war in Afghanistan, in which he served three tours. Potter, who has undergone mental health treatment to help him deal with the trauma of the battlefield, is concerned that the pandemic will exacerbate workers’ pre-existing mental health illnesses.

“Going to war is what put them over the edge,” Potter says of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. As war was the “tipping point” for these veterans to experience major mental illness, Potter worries that the coronavirus pandemic may do the same to others, magnifying unresolved trauma from their lives that they haven’t dealt with. 

As Potter says about how COVID-19 has impacted his life and his business, “there’s so much stuff that is out of our control.”

“I’m not going to put my family or company in the position to stress over the things we can’t control,” Potter says. He’s telling his employees that they need to give themselves “permission to not be perfect.”

“That’s been really helpful to be able to say, ‘Hey this does hurt, it does suck, but we’ll get through it,’” he says. “That alone takes a weight off your shoulders.”

How to cope in crisis

During the pandemic, it’s crucial for managers to be empathetic to employees, says Cathleen Swody, a founding partner of the executive coaching firm Thrive Leadership. This means that CEOs must consider more how they appear to workers, who may be struggling financially and resent seeing their chief’s opulent mansion or luxurious swimming pool during corporate video calls, as both Swody and Klitgaard have heard about some executives doing recently. 

“It’s like watching Michael,” Swody says, comparing those executives to the oblivious CEO from the sitcom The Office. “He’s just not seeing how it’s coming across.

“Personally put yourself in their shoes,” Swody says about executives and their relationship to rank-and-file employees. 

She also suggests that executives point to the “mission of the organization,” explaining the important role their businesses may serve in providing certain crucial services or catering to customers who are more directly involved in addressing the coronavirus pandemic. 

Crossover Health’s Boroff recommends that employees pay attention to warning signs that indicate potential mental health issues. Poor sleeping habits, overeating, or having trouble concentrating can all be signs of increased stress, he says.

Practicing meditation and focusing on tasks or projects you can control are some ways people can manage their anxiety during the current crisis, Boroff says. 

“I’m a big proponent of labeling feelings as they happen,” Boroff says, referring to the process of thinking about why you may be feeling a certain way. “We have science that shows the very act of labeling emotions as they happen can actually dampen the intensity of that emotion.”

Harvard Medical School physician Chris Palmer says that workers need to be open to seeking mental health treatment if they find they are having trouble adapting. Too often during crisis, people avoid seeking help because they mistakenly believe that it’s only the crisis causing their intense feelings of depression or anxiety rather than the calamity worsening underlying mental illnesses, Palmer explains.  

“Unfortunately right now, as far as we can tell, I don’t think that the pandemic is changing people’s perceptions of mental illness,” Palmer says, referring to the cultural taboo. 

For Klitgaard the software development coach, she has recently been hosting webinars intended to help workers better manage their stress and anxieties. In one recent virtual conference, she explained some simple steps that employees can take to feel just a little bit better. Just the act of asking someone “How are you?” can be a way to connect to a person during this crisis. And if you lose your cool, that’s okay. Just make sure that “if you yell, go apologize the next day,” she says.

Most importantly, if you feel you need some help, don’t be afraid to reach out to professional help, she says. Connecting with a mental health expert could be a saving grace.

“I’m lucky enough to be medicated, so I don’t go into the huge dark pits anymore,” Klitgaard says.

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