These days, “are you OK?” a common conversation opener, is a loaded question.

For many of us, it’s hard to be OK, even if in a particular moment, we feel totally fine.

Even as the region climbs out of Omicron, resiliency can be a tall ask. The stock market is rocky. Our retailers’ shelves are bare. Our masks are upgraded. And it wasn’t that long ago that our favorite businesses closed because their entire team was sick with COVID.

Now, we stress over holding long-awaited family get-togethers, and whether we should be sending our kids to school or daycare.  Some of us looked forward to a return to the workplace, while others not so much – but those plans seem to be in limbo.

So we throw up our hands at our calendars, which are filled with back-to-back, socially isolated Zooms.

All of this has impacted the collective mental health of our workforce, experts say. And employers would be well served to tap into the “Great Reprioritization” to find ways to support their employees. Otherwise, at a time of a growing mental health crisis coupled with the unrelenting mass resignation, these organizations may be out of players.

Dr. Youssef Hassoun: ‘The American culture has a lot of strength but also a lot weakness.’ (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

“The American culture has a lot of strength but also a lot weakness,” Dr. Youssef Hassoun, medical director of South Oaks Hospital, told LIBN.  “In a go-go-go business model, suddenly you find yourself that the business is not there, leading a lot of time to worry and reflect.”

And, he added “everything we took for granted is now shaken.”

These days, 6 in 10 Americans are “worn out” by the pandemic, according to a December Monmouth University poll.

These finding are hardly surprising.

“It’s a part of human nature to survive and thrive,” Nicholas Salter, an assistant professor of psychology, who specializes in industrial organizational psychology at Hofstra University, said. Yet people have been “dealing with long-term, low-grade stress that hasn’t let up,” he said. At first, it seemed like “a little worry” that’s “no big deal.”

But, he said, “If you’re worrying for months or years, there’s a compound effect.”

NICHOLAS SALTER: ‘If you’re worrying for months or years, there’s a compound effect.’ (Photo courtesy of Hofstra University)

Some of that pain is reflected in the nation’s 100,306 drug overdose deaths .That number jumped 28 percent from the year before, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in November.

“People are self-medicating – there’s so much pain and stress,” said Aoifa O’Donnell, CEO and president of National EAP, whose offerings include employee assistance programs and services for those needing help.

This is particular stressful time for human resources managers, “our unsung heroes,” she said, noting their jobs now include aspects they never signed up for, including checking vaccines and contact tracing.

And despite its numerous advantages in powering remote work, the Zoom concept hasn’t helped in organizations where people may be struggling.

For many, that “concept of going to work is their lives,” Hassoun said, noting that it is “part of the American business mindset.” Still, for some, new vulnerabilities may take hold when people are no longer leaving the house to go to work.

Hassoun said the hospital is seeing “more cases” where people “needed treatment that never treatment before,” including for anxiety and depression. Some were new diagnoses for patients. Yet there are other patients who were already diagnosed but had never needed the help of a hospital before. Some had been stable on medication prescribed by a private physician whom they no longer had access to, and the patients hadn’t determined what to do next.

Aoifa O’Donnell: ‘The workplace is changing.’ (Photo by Judy Walker)

And some people may be diagnosed with clinical depression, said Mindy Davidson, a board member for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Long Island Chapter.

“They may be on medication that just isn’t helping,” she said. “They may not be taking their medication. Or they might have never reached out to a doctor. “

Employers might not have opportunity to support a colleague who may be suffering when they “are not seeing the signs because they are not in front of us,” Hassoun warned. These employees may be “able to perform the job well, but perhaps they are disheveled, not taking a shower.”  Those signs are easy to miss because “there’s a tradition in Zoom of turning the cameras off.  People are hiding behind the camera.”

Hassoun calls for camera-on at his virtual meetings, telling his team that “I can’t have a quality meeting with cameras off.” There’s an assurance that comes with the sense of whom he is relying on with switched-on cameras – an aspect that doesn’t shine through with turned-off cameras.

The ‘Great Reprioritization’

As leaders continue to navigate the ups and downs of the pandemic, Hassoun said there is an underlying dilemma: “How do we become resilient in the face of uncertainty?”

Hassoun said it comes down to taking the initiative of treating people as individuals rather than as subsets.

And the question, “are you OK?” helps when it’s genuine, he said. Otherwise, it’s robotic.

“Authenticity is really important to this,” Salter said, referring to seeking ways to help.

For example, an outing, or a fun-themed Zoom event might seem like a morale-booster, but if it’s not what people want, it likely won’t generate positive results.

“Leadership needs to pay specific attention to what people want,” Salter said.

“The workplace is changing,” O’Donnell said. “People want more of a life. They are reprioritizing what’s important.”

“Giving each other breaks” can go a long way, O’Donnell said.  “Ask ‘what do you need to get through this month and the next month? We’re in it together so we can survive and thrive.’”

A survey or focus group can help organizations determine what to offer to provide that needed extra support, Salter said.

Maybe it’s an extra occasional day off. Or maybe it’s access to resources that help employees plan for retirement. Perhaps it’s a surprise bonus.

Or maybe it’s the nod to work remotely in a warm climate in the winter months, so long as productivity is constant. “People are grateful when they can do that,” Salter said.

Hybrid workplaces, flexible scheduling and company culture are now essential. “How a workplace feels and how people experience the workplace is king, going forward,” O’Donnell said.   

And don’t forget the authentic check-ins.

“A leader can be a resource if someone is having a hard day,” Salter said. Offering an extension for a colleague that needs extra time may be appreciated, but recognize that if “it’s a consistent problem – that’s another issue,” Salter said.

Authentic help is “being able to spot each other,” he said.

And realize that “people may not realize how they are personally doing,” Salter said.

But judgment-free conversations can point to a need for help.

And EAPs assist in providing that help, O’Donnell said. They can provide “short-term counseling at no cost by video, phone or in person with a licensed therapist, depending on the model.” The assistance is confidential and at no cost to the employee, she said.

Davidson said that “Talk Saves Lives,” a free AFSP education program, has been tailored for workplaces of all sizes, and can be held in-person or virtually.

Salter said pointing colleagues to resources can be more meaningful than we might ever realize.

O’Donnell agreed, adding “it can be life-changing.”

To bring Talk Saves Lives Suicide Prevention Education Program for Workplace Settings to your organization, call Ann Morrison at 516-869-4216 or email [email protected]

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