‘Corona Coaster’ of Emotions
Employee Needs, Support Systems Evolve
Looking back over the past year of work life amid a historic worldwide health crisis, professionals who help people navigate “Employee World” can now describe the textbook shifts in terrain we’ve experienced.
“We’ve definitely seen a predictable evolution,” said Anna Verschoore, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) manager and 30-year mental health clinician. “The primary issues a year ago were the logistics and emotions of transitioning to a telework environment. Most people had their children with them while they were working, so there were obvious parental and family stressors associated with making that transition…EAP also received a lot of calls from employees who live alone and experienced the pandemic challenges all on their own. Many folks have truly missed their colleagues and the meaningful work that brings purpose to our lives.”
Those early concerns evolved into a more prolonged grief related to not being able to spend time with loved ones outside of home, she noted. “The loss of connection with their coworkers—that’s a profound issue for a lot of folks, that shallowing of relationships that occurs when all you’re doing is meeting over the computer or phone. A human-connection breakdown occurred on the professional level as well as the personal level.”
The longer maximum telework endured, the more it began to really affect people, said Verschoore, who joined NIH at the beginning of the pandemic. “A depression kind of started setting in after maybe 4 or 5 months…As winter came, we saw a lag in people getting outdoors, fewer getting exercise or doing some of those restorative activities…Then you introduce the vaccine into the picture. We’ve had a lot of calls from people distressed about ‘when am I going to get it?’ ‘Why did my coworker get it before me?’ There’s a kind of vaccine envy, vaccine anxiety. ‘Am I going to be safe around my family even though I’ve only had my first immunization?’ These kinds of questions became the next phase.”
Unfortunately too, “a lot of predictable depressive symptoms have evolved into more severe mental illness states—and some folks have needed hospitalization for significant symptoms—and we’ve had to work with them [through those issues],” she said. “The reality is that we’ve had no choice as a culture but to tolerate, to survive what we can’t control. It has demanded that we call upon all of our resilience skills. And that’s something new, because a lot of folks are pretty depleted.”
Fortunately for NIH, Verschoore also has observed a fairly textbook response to these unprecedented challenges.
“The messages from leadership have been critically important,” she said. “‘Take care of yourself.’ ‘Here are services to support you and we’re going to give you maximum flexibility so that you can take care of your family and your personal needs while you’re still working.’ These actions have been critical in supporting the workforce and keeping people on the job.”
In the field for 43 years and counting, Linda M. Owen, manager of ORS child and family programs, acknowledged that having to conduct business remotely—during a pandemic—has been extraordinarily challenging.
“It’s always a full-time job, but it certainly has felt like more of a full-time job over the last year,” she said. “Because we’ve had so many new hurdles to face and also new things to learn. There’s been a lot of learning that’s been going on, in terms of our operations.”
Her team helps people work through a wide variety of practical problems the Covid crisis brought: The need for emergency back-up child-, adult- or self-care; tuition subsidies for lower-income federal employees to help pay for child-care costs; and referrals to the multitude of resources involved in supporting families.
“We’ve seen a huge spike for one service called the ‘parenting coach,’” she noted. “There was a 77 percent increase [over the last 12 months]…We’ve heard more from women particularly—scientists as well as administrators—feeling stressed. Winter was tough. We’ve heard the term ‘[riding the] corona coaster’?...but, people are reaching out, trying to find answers. I’m sorry they’re feeling in such need, because I suspect they’re coming from a place of uncertainty, being tired and fatigued and worried.”
At the start of this, Owen saw in the workforce a sense of adventure and curiosity that has since become resignation balanced with an abundance of creativity. “Back a year ago, [the lockdowns] felt short-term,” she said. “People anticipated that they would all be back to work [in person] by summer.”
Management analyst Tonya S. Lee, work-life coordinator of ORS Program and Employee Services, agreed.
“In the beginning, it was how do we adjust to this new work environment, to the needs of our families and our needs. Then midway through, it was mental health. And now we’re seeing a shift to resiliency, and how to deal with burn out, which a lot of us are experiencing.”
Lee, who has spent about 30 years in the work-life arena—the last 13 at NIH—has watched work attitudes and atmosphere evolve.
“Through this pandemic what we’ve had is a significant shift in thinking that these are actually programs that need to be part of the way NIH works,” she said. “Even though our services are in very high demand, it’s really rewarding to know that our efforts are looked upon as being something that people need…We’re able to relate to what the community needs, because we’re going through it with them. It’s been a great opportunity for NIH to highlight all the programs and services available to its workforce and to have the ability to create new resources.”
Recognizing that circumstances and conditions change is vital, Lee pointed out. “Supervisors, check in with your employees on a regular basis. You probably have employees who in the beginning might have had a bag of tricks and were able to adjust. Make sure they’re still doing well. It’s important to have meaningful interactions with each individual employee, to know what their needs are.”
Likewise, she noted, employees can be proactive. “Communicate with your supervisor what your needs are, what you’re going through. Resources are available. And, if there’s not a program available, or it’s not meeting the need, then please reach out to the program managers and let us know.”
Finally, keep in mind that those in place to offer assistance often may need assistance themselves.
“I think sometimes we lose track of the fact that the helpers are also human beings who have their own needs for recovery,” Verschoore stressed. Helpers are those who provide care and support to others, such as direct care providers, supervisors, mentors or parents, for example. “We are really careful as an EAP team to talk about our own self-care. Peer support is a critical part of staying healthy and strong and available emotionally, physically, spiritually, for the workforce. We encourage each other to practice what we preach.”
Sharing the most difficult problems is crucial among those providing support, she pointed out. Divvying up the burden or simply getting another perspective eases the load.
“We talk about hard cases,” Verschoore concluded. “We’ve had a lot of really hard mental health cases in the last year. Some of them were tragic, actually. And it really affects the helpers. Globally, any helper can have compassion fatigue. So we openly talk about how hard it is—the tragedy of loss and grief and the pain that our employees report to us. That helps us a lot.”
The EAP offers free, confidential short-term counseling to help employees cope with stress and anxiety related to the pandemic. To make an EAP appointment, call (301) 496-3164.
ORS’ Division of Amenities and Transportation Services offers many tools and programs to aid NIH'ers, including the NIH Child and Family Programs: www.childfamilycare.ors.nih.gov. For details, see https://www.ors.od.nih.gov/pes/dats/wellness/Pages/index.aspx. To receive regular updates on health and wellness events, subscribe to firstname.lastname@example.org.