Over the last year, we’ve all experienced a lot of stress.
Isolation, feeling trapped, changing schedules, uncertainty about jobs, finances and family obligations have impacted
people, even if they don’t realize it. Not to mention the health unknowns associated with COVID-19.
City officials and employees are no exception, especially since many local government employees have been essential workers on the front lines throughout the pandemic.
As many people are now vaccinated and in-person work practices are resuming on various levels, it’s important to realize that the impact of COVID-19 on employees is lasting. There are steps employers can take to ease the transition.
Nearly seven in 10 employees indicated in a survey by mental health provider Ginger that the COVID-19 pandemic has been and still is the most stressful time of their entire professional career. This aligns with stark increases in new prescriptions of antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications over the last year.
Lee-Anne Vaughn, Clinical Social Work/Therapist, MBA, LCSW, based in Nicholasville, Kentucky, said if you think of your life as a giant chalkboard, consider all the things written on it that fill your life and time; things like summer vacations, celebrations, hobbies you do with others, book clubs, family reunions and church events.
“It’s as if someone took an eraser and wiped away many of the good parts of our lives over the last year.” She said even mundane things such as taking your kids to events or going to regular types of appointments went away, making our lives abnormal. Ongoing financial and health concerns for ourselves and family members added to the stress.
Losing those things that make up how you spend your life for a year is hard. Now that people are coming back together, perspective is important. Cities and other employers continue to make safety protocols a priority. But it’s the unseen effects of COVID that employers may not think about.
Dr. Desreen Dudley, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and the senior behavioral consultant for Teledoc. That program is affiliated with HealthiestYou, which is a service through the Kentucky League of Cities Employee Benefits program. She recently presented a KLC City EDvantage Session entitled “COVID-19 Effects on Your Mental Health & Community Well-Being.” She describes the COVID pandemic as a “collective trauma” event noting that no one has been immune to its effects.
Dudley said 80% of people have struggled in one way or another with issues including loneliness and isolation which can lead to serious anxiety, depression and other disorders. She noted that there has been a definite uptick in diagnosed mental health conditions in the last year. Left untreated, those issues can lead to even more serious conditions. Additionally, many people have put off regular checkups or doctor’s visits so physical issues and undiagnosed problems have resulted.
This historic year is challenging as employees and employers are now trying to assume some type of a “new normal.”
Vaughn said one thing employers can do is cultivate a culture of gratitude. While it still may be too soon for office parties and picnics, make sure employees know your organization is grateful for the work they have done in the past year and the adjustments they continue to make to get their jobs done. City employees, especially public safety, public works and others that work directly with the public have been our heroes right along with healthcare workers and other front line and delivery workers. Tell them that.
As for individuals, Vaughn said there are intentional things we can do to relieve stress. It can be helpful to observe the times in your day when you feel increased stress. What are you doing during those times? Listening to the news? Scrolling through social media? Consider limiting those activities.
“Schedules are important. As we resume more normal work schedules, having a regular bedtime and set mealtimes can be anchors that you build the day around for you and your family,” said Vaughn.
Vaughn and Desreen both say that it’s important not to judge yourself for feelings you’ve experienced and may still be experiencing.
Vaughn said, “Feeling frustrated, anxious, sad, mad, and scared comes with the territory. Allow yourself to feel those things. Having them doesn’t mean you're doing something wrong.”
Realize that other people - your children, your older relatives - also have different types of stress. For instance, in many cases older people have been isolated for a year, which takes its toll. Co-workers and employees have also experienced all this stress in their own lives. Our neighbors and friends may be more or less comfortable than you are in situations, so it’s important to be patient with each other and be respectful of different views.
Finally, Vaughn said for city officials and supervisory employees, it’s especially important to give yourself a break. It’s normal to feel stress. “For over a year now, our elected officials have been trying to navigate uncharted waters not just for themselves but for their city employees and their constituents.”
For people in these jobs, self-care is important - adequate sleep, nutritious meals and physical movement can be particularly important.
As we move back into more in-person environments, make time for planning, but avoid going down the endless rabbit hole of "what ifs.” Focus on what you can do now and in the short-term future. As things change and new information emerges, reevaluate and choose your next best step.
Dr. Desreen said it’s important to do what you can to destress, not just as we come out of COVID, but any time. “If fishing relaxes you, make a point to go fishing,” she said. “If you’re experiencing more serious feelings of depression or anxiety, check into talking with a professional.”
Most employers, including many cities, offer an employee assistance programs (EAP) benefit. If you haven’t already, now may be a good time to review and promote these types of services to employees. Your city’s HR professional or insurance contact will have ideas on resources that may be available. KLC insurance members can also contact our Agency team to discuss HealthiestYou and other types of services.
Over the last year, communities have relied on city employees and officials to carry on, so it’s never been more important to make sure those people are taking care of themselves.