Examining the state of our own personal mental health is not an exercise that many of us are familiar with. That is until March 12 when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
As we put on our gloves and place masks over our faces, we are listening a little more closely to that inner voice that is telling us to keep our stress levels under control.
Stress is flying in from a variety of sources. A central one is how the companies we work for are reacting to this pandemic and how they are keeping us safe.
One company is addressing the issue from a variety of approaches. Opening up the website of PPG, a supplier of paints, coatings and specialty materials, the first thing that pops up is a message from the company’s CEO Michael H. McGarry. The opening line is one that you would not expect from a Fortune 500 company: “I hope this message finds you and your loved ones safe and healthy.”
McGarry continues: “At the center of our company’s purpose is a commitment to ‘protect and beautify the world.’ Today, the word ‘protect’ is taking on an even greater significance to all of us. We are focused on protecting our people, customers and all of our stakeholders.”
The letter continues to assure the reader that employees are being provided “ongoing instructions and communications” that include “encouraging heightened awareness of general hygiene precautions, social distancing and adjusting operations according to regulations.”
Adjusting operations also involves planning for different types of employees. “As a manufacturer, much of this essential work cannot be done remotely,” explains Mark Cancilla, PPG’s vice president, environment, health and safety. “At sites where we continue to operate, we employ site-specific health and safety measures such as frequent and thorough cleaning and sanitizing, split-shifts, social distancing and other tools, which have been used successfully at PPG locations around the world to keep our people safe.”
Heavy Burdens in the Construction Industry
Keeping people safe is a complicated issue for the construction industry as well. “In many places, construction is still being considered an essential business,” explains Angela Cloud, field safety engineer with McCownGordon Construction. “This leads to frustration because many of our workers have entire families staying home, but since he or she is still at work on the construction site, they are risking their safety and their families’ safety.”
While Cloud says construction companies are doing what they can to provide handwashing facilities, as well as increasing cleaning and social distancing to help employees feel safe at work. She says that health screenings, temperature checks and constant communication in the field have been important for managing stress.
“However, the situation places a heavy burden on the construction worker,” Cloud says. “If employees choose to stay home, many of them may not get paid, which leads to a financial and mental burden.”
Dealing with mental health is part of Cloud’s work as a board member of the Mo/Kan (Missouri/Kansas) Suicide Prevention Alliance. “There are several aspects of the construction industry that put employees at risk. Construction has a reputation of long hours and a fast-paced schedule. There is frequent overtime, weekend work, and sometimes even night work. This can limit the time employees have at home with their loved ones, their hobbies, and their overall life outside of work, which puts a mental strain on people.”
Also, Cloud observes, “There is a ‘tough guy’ mentality in our industry, which may discourage individuals from coming forward with issues pertaining to mental health. Unfortunately, construction can be a dangerous industry. If anyone were to get hurt and be prescribed painkillers for their injuries, there is always addiction potential, which can lead to mental health issues and suicide.”
And suicide is a major concern in the construction industry. In a CDC study released in January 2020, the total suicide rate among all men was 27.4 individuals per 100,000; however, the rate was considerably higher at 49.4 for men who worked in construction.
The industry is addressing this issue by encouraging the use of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for individuals to ensure confidentially, says Cloud. “They are also focusing on training front-line leaders to recognize signs and symptoms of suicide and other mental health concerns to make sure conversations are being started with those who need it,” she adds.
These efforts are working, Cloud believes. “The current state of mental health education in the construction industry is improving from where we were, but there are still opportunities for improvement. In our region, several general contractors have partnered with OSHA to provide more resources, more education, and to simply get the important conversations started with our workers.”
Starting conversations and identifying problems are important steps in addressing mental health concerns, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization that addresses the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting overall mental health for all Americans.. To help people identify issues, the organization offers free online, real-time screening. “We are seeing a significant increase—around 20%—in the number of people who are taking our real-time assessment since mid-February,” explains Paul Gionfriddo, CEO of Mental Health America.
Since the screening program was founded six years ago, 5 million people have taken the screening. Typically, 2,000-3,000 people a week complete a screening where they receive immediate results, education, resources and links to affiliates. The stress from dealing with COVID-19 has driven that 20% increase.
The stress can be attributed to several factors. A study done by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) on March 25 found that more than one-third of Americans (36%) say coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health, and most (59%) feel coronavirus is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives. Most adults are concerned that the coronavirus will have a serious negative impact on their finances (57%), and almost half are worried about running out of food, medicine, and/or supplies. Two-thirds of Americans (68%) fear that the coronavirus will have a long-lasting impact on the economy.
The willingness of individuals to use these assessments to understand their stress levels aligns with increased involvement of employers in this area of employee health. “The importance of this field is growing,” says Gionfriddo. “Employers have come a long way in the benefits they are now offering. The EAPs are now being strengthened to provide better service. In addition to these formal benefits, we are seeing companies offering informal assistance in the form of peer support. This way employees can connect with others who are dealing with the same issues.”
To help these efforts, the organization offers a Bell Seal certification which signifies that an employer has a mentally healthy work environment.
Learning to Talk About It
Creating and maintaining a mentally healthy work environment means having a culture conducive to conversations. “In dealing with COVID-19, it’s important to formalize the fact that we are all experiencing some level of anxiety, loneliness and isolation,” explains Darcy Gruttadaro, J.D., director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “Normalizing these feelings helps people feel comfortable in sharing their feelings. And if the top leadership is open as well, it helps create a culture that can address mental health issues.”
The problem with ignoring these issues, says Gruttadaro, is that it can lead to chronic levels of mental illness such as anxiety, depression and other serious mental health problems.
Gruttadaro suggests that companies specifically address this issue with employees and not merely include information on this topic as part of an overall communication on dealing with the physical aspects of protection from COVID-19.
One reason to separate these messages is that the hesitation to talk about discussing mental health issues is still strong. A 2019 APA study found that only 50% of workers say they are at least somewhat comfortable discussing mental health openly with coworkers and supervisors. Age plays a factor in this as well; Millennials are almost twice as likely as Baby Boomers to be comfortable (62% vs. 32%) talking about these issues.
But these statistics could change as everyone tries to deal with COVID-19. “Now is a good time to remind employees that EAPs provide confidential services to address mental health issues.” Gruttadaro notes. “It’s also a good time to educate employees on how to manage stress through self-care.”
In fact, with a large percentage of the population facing these issues for the first time, it could create a sympathy for those who deal with mental health issues on an on-going basis. “People who have dealt with mental health issues in the past can serve as a model for those who are now going through these issues due to COVID-19,” says Gionfriddo. “I can even see employers wanting to bring these experienced people into their companies to provide peer support.”
But we also need to look at the societal effects that mental health challenges, due to COVID-19, will have on the economy, he adds. “If you put a price tag on the 10% to 20% increase that we have seen in people taking our tests, we will need $25-50 billion. That cost includes increased use of services and even hospitalization for some conditions.”
Gionfriddo is concerned that “so far, our policy makers haven’t come close to putting those kinds of resources into behavior health treatment services or support in any of the stimulus packages to date.”
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for employees and employers alike to address the issue of mental health. While some employers have programs in place, there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.