Frontline workers long to be free of the stress and anxiety created by the coronavirus pandemic. Employers need to pay extra attention to employees’ mental health, say experts and organizations that have compiled startling statistics on the emotional toll the crisis is taking on people.

Workers Yearn to Be Free of Fear, Uncertainty

Mental health experts offer advice and resources in helping employers safeguard the emotional wellbeing of employees during the coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is harming Americans’ mental health. So says the Kaiser Family Foundation, which in March began tracking the toll the crisis has had on people’s emotional wellbeing.

In July, KFF reported more than half of the adults it surveyed say stress and worry related to the pandemic have negatively impacted their mental health. It’s a 14 percent increase since May.

While the KFF report covers people from all walks of life, another study shows that more than 25 million Americans are front-line workers or those who cannot work from home and therefore are more exposed to the threat of catching COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. These essential workers include those in the hotel industry.

WORRY AND STRESS: Kaiser Family Foundation’s study revealed adults admit the coronavirus pandemic is exacting a toll on their mental health.

Fear Factors

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health in July reported “a surge in people showing signs of depression, anxiety and other serious mental health distress” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organization quoted recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau that shows nearly a tripling of people showing signs of depression or anxiety. The distress is mainly caused by uncertainty about job security, health, finances and the future, reports the center.

“Essential workers have remained on the job, causing fears and distress for them and their families,” said the report.

The coronavirus pandemic and the negative impact it’s had on the hotel industry has created an unfamiliar business environment for owners, operators and employees.

Dealing with customers who do not want to comply with social distancing and wearing face masks adds to the heap of uncertainty and fear.

Silpa Patel, a hotelier in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, knows first-hand the challenges hotel owners and operators face in managing a business. The job is hard even in the best of times. The coronavirus crisis coupled with the subsequent severe economic downturn in the hospitality industry is trying the souls of even the strongest business owners.

LISTEN: ‘PEOPLE HAVE CHANGED’: Starbucks Coffee Co. has provided employees with free access to Headspace, a meditation app, as part of its enhanced mental health benefit package. Episode 282 of Lodging Leaders podcast tackles the threat to hospitality workers’ mental health as hotels navigate doing business during the coronavirus pandemic, which has spiked fears, anger and frustration among employees and guests. (Photo: Starbucks Coffee Co.)

Hospitality’s Front Lines

A couple years ago, Patel sought help after her mother and other family members recognized signs of depression in her. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety and sought treatment that took her away from her home and children for about a month.

Patel said it was hard to admit that life had gotten the better of her, but she is grateful to family members who intervened and for the doctors and other health care providers who restored her to mental wellness.

Today Patel is a resource specialist with the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug and Other Addiction Services and she works with Stigma Zero, an online mental health training program for business managers. Her goal is to develop programs within the hotel industry.

“The hotel industry is very competitive and it brings a lot of stress and anxiety to an individual,” she said.

Once Patel returned to work, she began to pay more attention to other owners, operators and employees who all faced the same stressors as she did.

“I started to correlate how much more important it is to have mental health in the hotel industry. It’s very interesting that nobody has brought it to the surface or even talked about it when they’re in a 24-hours-a-day-seven-days-a-week customer-centric business.”

Patel said she watched how employees’ demeanor or countenance changed when faced with a difficult interaction with an angry guest, for example. She began paying attention to the way employees talked about their job.

Most of all, Patel realized workers are reluctant to discuss any difficulties with their managers.

“As much as hotels want to offer incentives to employees, nobody is paying attention to mentally how they’re doing. So how are we going to be able to make our employees are safeguarded mentally and physically?”

Hotel corporations and larger ownership groups might offer their rank and file wellness-focused incentives, but fail to address the root of the problem, she said.

“It has to start from the top. If leadership is strong and puts more emphasis on individuals it really will make a difference in how the company will perform.”

The Center for Workplace Mental Health is developing and collecting resources addressing mental health and well-being for both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you or someone you know is in immediate need of assistance:

  • Disaster Distress Helpline (SAMHSA)
    Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Link)
    Call 800-273-8255 or Chat with Lifeline
  • Crisis Textline (Link)
    Text TALK to 741741
  • Veterans Crisis Line (VA)
    Call 800-273-8255 or text 838255

One company that stepped up to offer greater mental health care benefits is Starbucks Coffee Co.

In mid-March, when the World Health Organization classified the new-coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic and the Trump administration declared a national emergency, Starbucks Coffee Co. announced it was expanding its employee health care benefits to include free sessions with mental health therapists through Lyra Health.

The program is an enhancement of what Starbucks called its reimagined mental health initiative it launched in September.

Starbucks spokesperson Jessica Conradson said that in June the company teamed up with National Council for Behavioral Health and created Starbucks Mental Health Fundamentals Training. It’s designed to help employers and employees learn how to listen for, recognize and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse and offer helpful resources.

The coronavirus pandemic and the negative impact it’s had on the hotel industry has created an unfamiliar business environment for owners, operators and employees.

Dealing with customers who do not want to comply with social distancing and wear face masks adds to the heap of uncertainty and fear.

Patel anticipates an increase in stress and anxiety for hotel employees.

“People (checking into our hotels) are going to be very different versus just six months ago. They’re going to be very, very demanding, very needy. How are you going to be able to train employees to empathize with that guest? I think training in that is going to be so crucial. I wish hotel corporations would focus on this.

“As a franchisee owner, it’s very important to take it upon yourself to find programs out there to take that training so employees can be aware of how to take care of themselves first and foremost and secondly be able to deliver customer service to that guest.”

Workplace Support

Darcy Gruttadaro is director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Foundation in Washington, D.C.

She is seeing an increase in worker distress over the threat of COVID-19. The world is in upheaval and employers would benefit from acknowledging the impact the uncertainty is having on customers as well as employees.

THREAT TO BLACK WORKERS: A study by the Center for Workplace Mental Health, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the coronavirus pandemic is emotionally impacting Black employees the most.

“Employers should be aware that people are under incredible stress,” she said. Employers need to acknowledge that and create an environment in which they and their employees can talk about it.

“Whether a large hospitality outfit or a small mom-and-pop outfit, it’s really important that leadership show some vulnerability around their own feelings.”

For workers on the job, managers need to be mindful of any hints that they’re struggling emotionally. The key to gauging workers’ mental wellbeing is to look for changes in their appearances or their behaviors, when people “don’t act like themselves,” Gruttadaro said.

Let the employee know you want to make sure they’re OK and that you’re worried about them. Fortify the conversation by letting the employee know they’re valued and you want them to succeed at their jobs.

Gruttadaro said the Center for Workplace Mental Health is seeing an increase in people having difficulty coping nowadays, and that includes substance abuse and suicide.

Employers should be aware of preventative programs their staff members can access and share that information with them. “At the end of the day, what’s really important is that employees feel supported by managers; that management has their back and is there for them.”

To learn more about the coronavirus impact’s on worker mental health, check out these resources.

COVID Resources

Employers in various sectors are calling laid-off employees back to work but it’s a different picture in the hospitality industry.

First off, most hotels did not fully close and continue to operate with reduced staff.

Second, those that either closed or scaled back operations are not calling back as many employees as other industries.

Thirdly, many large hotels have permanently closed, leaving thousands jobless.

A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows U.S. unemployment is a little more than 10 percent, but 40 percent of those empty jobs are in the hospitality industry.

The Society for Human Resource Management Foundation has added mental health and wellness programs to its battery of resources, said Wendi Safstrom, executive director of the foundation.

While the statistics about the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on workforces are alarming, employers and employees have access to treasure troves of information on how to manage the new workplace.

“Some of our research has demonstrated that 41 percent employees are burned out and exhausted,” Safstrom said. “One in three employees haven’t done anything to cope” with the new reality.

COVID BURNOUT: A study by the Society for Human Resource Managers found that people who continue to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic are struggling mentally, with some experiencing depression. The professional association surveyed more than a thousand workers in mid-April and found that nearly half feel emotionally drained from their work. The younger the employee, the more likely they feel burned out. Employees who feel totally sapped of energy are more prone to depression.

When seeking to support and help workers succeed in the COVID-19 environment, employers and managers would do well to accept that people have changed, Safstrom said.

SHRM’s resources can help human resource professionals “cut through the noise” of all the disparate information and guidance given regarding the virus and the economic crisis.

One of the tools that the Society for Human Resource Management has now is Psych Hub, an online training platform that offers certification for mental and behavioral health providers as well as a free public video library with information about mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention.

Psych Hub provides free information on how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic’s emotional toll on people and on the workplace. It also offers information on crisis leadership and how to prepare workplaces for COVID-19.

Marjorie Morrison is co-founder and CEO of Psych Hub. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a school psychologist and author on the mental health issues in the military.

Psych Hub can track trending mental health topics based on what kind of videos website visitors are watching.

Last month, Psych Hub saw an increase in downloads on bipolar disorder after Kim Kardashian turned to social media to ask for tolerance of her husband Kanye West’s public messaging on politics and his plans to run for president.

This month, as parents plan to send their children back to school, videos on ADHD saw a spike in interest.

Videos that cover panic disorder and panic attacks have been consistently popular since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re also seeing a lot of interest about insomnia, depression and suicide prevention,” she said. “Overall, the trends show that people are having a hard time right now.

“There are some industries that are having a tougher time than others and the hospitality industry is definitely one of those.

“Across the board, this is really an unprecedented time. I think the most important thing that anyone can do is to get educated.”

The more knowledge and training an employer and employees have regarding the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on workforces as well as customers can have far-reaching positive impacts.

“The really interesting thing,” Morrison said, “is that when you get educated to help somebody else, you end up helping yourself.”

If an employer asks the staff do they want training in mental health, the answer is usually yes. These days, Morrison said, “people are very hungry for it.”

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