HAPPINESS COLUMN | Healthy workplace relationships crucial during COVID-19

Whether you're not working at all, working from home or still at your usual workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking a moment to think about your colleagues and those you manage can contribute to a less stressful time.

Workplaces, both physical and virtual, play a role in reducing stress and elevating happiness

Keeping workplace relationships healthy, for healthcare workers and others, is crucial to the mental health and stress reduction of everyone, writes CBC happiness columnist Jennifer Moss. (CBC)

COVID-19 has forced many of us into new ways of doing our jobs. And for some, it's taking a major toll.

Essential workers feel the daily stress of working despite the risks. Working parents are juggling both the chaos of family life and working from home without all the normal resources and tools.

Then, there are the frontline healthcare workers, who feel like they're in a war zone. Just when they need to refuel, they head home after their shift and are now forced to sleep in their garages, or in makeshift isolation rooms — totally separate from the people they love.

This new normal is obviously having an impact on our psychological safety and mental health. And yet, there is hope — with help from employers who can make this easier, and coworkers who can help each other out.

Essential workers and chronic stress 

Before COVID-19, a person working in a grocery store, at the pharmacy, or at the bank, felt generally safe. Now, they are risking their personal safety every time they come to work.

Acute fear is one thing — we need it for our survival. It helps us detect danger and prepare to deal with those threats. But chronic fear is different. When stress has continued for some time, the body struggles to resist it and that can lead to burnout. The impact of burnout is serious.

When people are subjected to chronic fear for a sustained period of time it can cause mood swings, learned helplessness, obsessive disorders, sleep disruption, headaches and chronic pain. It can even cause asthma, which is considered a dangerous underlying condition for COVID-19.

What employers can do 

With this mind, employers should consider increasing mental health supports for affected groups, along with danger pay.

Right now, it's important to have basic corporate hygiene: commensurate pay with level of risk, job security, and benefits that are easily accessible if an employee becomes sick. The government is helping with some of that, but employers need to communicate clearly and often about how they can help. Employers should set up an internal website if they don't already have one and use it as a shared communication space where employees can get all the information they need. 

Employers can also go above and beyond by subsidizing childcare and offering additional mental health resources like virtual therapists or peer support groups.

Check in. Set up virtual meetings with staff to find out how they're feeling every day.  

I am hopeful that after COVID-19 is over, people continue to celebrate all workers as essential. Historically, we've classified jobs into different categories of "usefulness" and that categorizing has been completely flipped on its head during the outbreak. That is a good thing. There are hundreds-of-thousands of employees who are putting their personal safety at risk right now and they should be celebrated. 

The New Era of #WFH

The number of people working from home has made WFH a trending topic on social media. #WFHtips, #WFHLife, all intended to guide people who have never worked from home in their lives, figure it all out. Mark Barrenechea, CEO of Canadian-based, OpenText, estimated in a Bloomberg interview that 300 million people shifted to remote work at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Some of the people I've interviewed are ready to get back to the office. They're missing face-to-face interactions with clients and coworkers and have described feelings of loneliness. However, advocates for the work-from-home flexibility will be happy if this is their new normal. 

Experts claim that working from home solves a whole host of problems that working in an actual physical building creates — like commuting which is known to increase depression, divorce, and of course fossil-fuel emissions. It allows for people to move outside of expensive urban centres and get access to more affordable housing.

Plus, studies show that remote workers are happier, with 71 per cent of remote workers saying they're happy in their job, compared to only 55 per cent of in-office workers who say they're happy at work. Of course, we're in unprecedented times so this is not a sure bet. But if uncertainty was what was holding back employers from giving remote work a try, that is no longer an unknown.

A Kitchener neighbourhood put out a sign thanking health care professionals for their work amid COVID-19. (Andrew Coppolino/ Twitter)

The emotional toll on healthcare professionals

Healthcare workers are in extreme circumstances and yet they already battle burnout during normal times.

I've spent a considerable amount of time working with physicians and nurses on managing burnout — it's a major issue. Suicide rates for male physicians are 40 per cent higher than the average suicide rate; for female physicians, it's 130 per cent higher.

Healthcare professionals are in caregiver roles which lend themselves to empathy and compassion fatigue. Right now, they're making impossible decisions under extreme conditions: working unsustainable hours, many fearing they will soon lack the resources to do their jobs — and then on top of it all — they are missing the physical connection to their families from the self-isolation required to stop the spread. 

This makes it all the more important that we protect their safety by listening to their urgent requests to stay home. The sooner they can get back to their families, the better off they will be emotionally and mentally.

Purple people care 

Healthcare leaders may not feel like they have much control over their employee's circumstances aside from ensuring basic needs are met, such as access to drugs, masks, gowns, respirators, ventilators and other resources — but they can also ensure they mitigate preventable stress. 

An example of preventable stress could mean ensuring printers and technology are working seamlessly. If it breaks down, the response to fixing it should be swift.

Leadership can streamline resources by assessing if the right people are doing the right jobs so administrative work doesn't fall to staff who are caring for patients. Supervisors can filter communication by sending out only priority messages to staff. Team leaders can coordinate breaks, just to create emotional breathers. 

In my recent discussion with Dr. Edward Ellison, executive medical director and chairman of the board for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, he told me about a program he implemented that has been beneficial during COVID-19. 

He's deployed a group of physicians that rotate wearing purple scrubs. That purple scrub signifies, "I am on duty for your mental health. I am here today if you need me. I am a safe place to share how you're doing."

The Rest of Us

For anyone not fitting in to these categories: We are still dealing with stress. Fortunately, there are resources out there than can help. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has support specific to Mental health and COVID-19 on its web page. Tips include coping strategies and resources to manage our mental health during the pandemic. It offers answers to questions such as: 

  • How do I talk to my children about COVID-19 and its impact?
  • How can I support a loved one who is very anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • I have a friend who can't stop talking about COVID-19 and wants to process worst case scenarios. How do I deal with this?
  • How can I deal with feeling lonely while in self-isolation?

These are just a few of the topics, but we can all benefit with some mental health help during our new normal — which actually feels quite abnormal if you ask me. 

What I would say is a good way to deal with our anxious feelings right now is to remind ourselves daily, that even if some things do change at work and in life, we are in uncharted waters and anything that we're trying for the first time is going to feel imperfect and may even cause added stress.

But the more we work out the kinks, the better we'll feel. Look at this time as an opportunity to grow and learn. The most important behaviour we can exhibit right now is compassion. Try to give each other a break. People are all coping differently with the pandemic and we don't always know what our co-worker is going through. 

Despite the days we may feel the opposite, remember that we are a very resilient species. After COVID-19 releases its grip and lets us go, we be stronger and we will thrive. 

About the Author

Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member.


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