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FROM THE EDITOR: How have businesses supported employees’ mental health during the pandemic?

Dr. Graham Tse, chief medical officer at Long Beach Memorial, sits in the Reflection Garden outside the hospital Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Whether you want to call it “the Great Resignation,” “Striketober” or simply a resurgence of worker power, the statistics don’t lie: A record-breaking number of workers are simply walking away from jobs that demand too much and offer too little in the way of pay or benefits.

And it’s no wonder: While the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be—hopefully—behind us, its impact still lingers—in lives lost, in a slowing economic recovery and in our own physical and mental well-being.

Employers, for their part, are taking notice. A majority (54%) of full-time employees reported in a recent nationwide study that they believed their company prioritized mental health, up from 41% in 2019.

Of course, it’s one thing for research to reveal a trend and another thing to see what that trend looks like in practice. So I reached out to some of Long Beach’s biggest employers to get a sense of whether they implemented new programs or benefits to address employees’ mental health during the pandemic, and if so, how successful they were.

Not every company I reached out to got back to me, but the ones that did shared similar approaches to supporting their employees during these uncertain times. Specifically, they emphasized their attempts to be more flexible with schedules and time off; new programs to foster a sense of community and more open culture around mental health; and efforts to better inform workers about employee assistance programs and other benefits that predated the pandemic.

For the City of Long Beach, that last point has been key.

“The City has been offering a suite of behavioral health services to employees for a number of years now,” said Michelle Hamilton, the City’s Human Resources Officer of Benefits & Return to Work, “but certainly during the pandemic, the communication of these resources became more focused and frequent as we navigated employees through the pandemic.”

Hamilton pointed to behavioral health services, “lunch and learn” sessions on different health and fitness topics, live and virtual fitness classes and access to resources like the Calm meditation app as some of the ways the city supports its employees’ mental health.

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s Vice President of Human Resources Kathie Nirschl, meanwhile, told me that the way the aquarium has approached its employees’ mental health has evolved with the pandemic. Early on, she said, the facility offered what it called “closure camp” for the children of employees—similar to its more traditional summer camp offerings—to help with child care.

“That was just sort of acknowledging the pressures, really, on the working parents,” Nirschl said, “so we tried from the beginning to offer them what we could.”

The aquarium has also offered Zoom sessions for workers on topics like navigating homeschooling, nutrition, exercise and mindfulness. And workers on site have occasionally been welcomed by comfort dogs, massages and programs like the monthly “Morning Mic,” in which staff members or their children serenade the team as the workday begins.

“It’s not like we’re saying, ‘This is going to address your mental health,’” Nirschl said of those efforts, “but it sort of helps bring that spark back.”

Nirschl acknowledged that much of her team’s focus since COVID-19 hit has been on compliance with mandated health protocols and preventing a workplace coronavirus outbreak, with less of a laser focus on employees’ mental well-being. But even efforts to address workers’ basic needs—like a food and supply pantry the aquarium opened for its furloughed workers while the facility was shuttered—clearly had an effect on their mental health.

“Staff who were furloughed could drive up on the appointed hours to get a clipboard and check off the things they needed, and staff would go and collect those in a bag and hand them off curbside,” Nirschl said. “One person told me, ‘People rely on me to bring food in the house, to put the food on the table. This was absolutely helpful for helping me feed my family.’”

But the measure that Nirschl said had perhaps the most impact was simply being flexible with scheduling and understanding of whatever sudden emergencies came up for employees.

“Our goal as an employer,” she said, “has been to not add to anyone’s burden during these times.”

But not every industry has the luxury of being so flexible with employees’ time.

During the worst surges of COVID-19, the need for frontline health care workers only became more urgent. So Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital had to find other avenues to support its employees.

Dr. Graham Tse, the hospital’s chief medical officer, told me that one of the first changes the hospital made to help support workers during the pandemic was simply making it easier to access mental health resources.

“We talked to our staff and our physicians and said, ‘Hey, what do you need?’” Tse said. “What we heard was that they needed more resources and that they needed it now, and that … many didn’t have the time to go and access resources that were available online or to call this or call that number. So [Miller’s operator] MemorialCare formed groups to really research and figure out what was the best way to push resources to the employees.”

What resulted was a plan to literally meet employees where they were at.

“We’d actually go to where the staff were, so actually go up to the units and hold small groups,” Tse said, “right there when they’re working in a room, so that they didn’t have to travel anywhere.”

The hospital also recognized that “one size didn’t fit all,” Tse said, so MemorialCare offered both spiritual advisors and mental health professionals. One-on-one counseling was also available for those who weren’t comfortable speaking in a group setting.

Employees received paid time to take advantage of those programs, Tse said.

My next question for both Tse and Nirschl, though, was about the future: Are these new programs short-term measures, or will Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital and the Aquarium of the Pacific continue to offer them, even after the pandemic subsides?

Both representatives said their approach to supporting employees is a two-way conversation. As long as employees say they’re benefitting from these programs and services, the companies will continue to provide them.

For Tse, the urgency of offering services in person, at a unit-by-unit level, has waned.

“Most [workers] have said, ‘We don’t quite need that pushed out to us anymore,’” he said. “We still have, really, all the same resources that we had previously, but it’s more—not in the background, but it’s more—not so much right at their place of work.”

But the hospital’s commitment to its workers’ well-being continues.

“We’re absolutely looking at this as a long-term initiative,” Tse said, “As long as our staff is indicating they need the resources, we’ll continue to support them.”

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, Nirschl has a similar perspective. The flexibility for employees in particular, she said, will remain in place.

“We sort of had a mechanism in place for people to work from home, and people can access their data and things like that, but that has increased a lot,” she said. “We will continue that, where, even when it’s all clear, people might not have to come in five days a week.”

Nirschl, though, had her own question about what the future may bring.

“We’re still in it,” she said. Once COVID-19 is fully behind us, Nirschl predicted, “we’ll be dealing with, almost like a PTSD.”

It’s been one thing to react to the day-by-day needs of staff. But at some point, she said, this moment will require closure—and for now, Nirschl, like everyone else, is unsure of what that will look like.

“Everybody’s just trying to get through the day, and once you exhale, that wave of, ‘Oh my gosh, what did we just go through?’ comes,” she said. “I think we’re really going to have to be addressing the aftermath, once the crisis is over.”

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