Mental, emotional health for clinicians during the pandemic: 4 thoughts for reintegrating work life

As you get back to work, here is how we see the opportunity to improve your mental and emotional health.

Around the country as millions of Americans are returning back to work, the question on many of their minds is will it be safe? They are concerned about the risk of getting Covid-19 or passing it on to their coworkers or customers, and they are preparing themselves by donning masks, moving their desks more than 6 feet apart, and learning new protocols for what to do when they have a fever. But another aspect of safety at work that they should be thinking about is mental and emotional health. Hospitals and health systems are employers and taking these steps can show leadership and help your employees reintegrate.

Over the past few months, Covid-19 has forced many of us to isolate ourselves in our homes, keeping us from the family and friends we often rely on for emotional support. It has kept people with known depression, anxiety or substance abuse issues from accessing the critical treatments that keep their conditions at bay. As a result, 50% of Americans have reported mental health issues related to the pandemic and there has been a 1000% increase in calls to the federal emergency hotline.

May is Mental Health Awareness Health Month. This year it is more important than ever. Here are some practical steps you can take at work to improve your mental and emotional health.

Understand your health benefits: Many employers offer free or low-cost mental and emotional health benefits that their employees don’t even know about. One common benefit is employee assistance programs (or EAP), which offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to help employees deal with work-life stressors, family issues, financial concerns, relationship problems, and drug or legal concerns. Another common benefit is telemedicine, which offers virtual visits with medical doctors and other types of medical professionals. Often if employees know about telemedicine, it’s for urgent care complaints like cough or back pain, but increasingly major telemedicine companies that provide these services also offer virtual therapy and psychiatry. In addition to these, increasingly employers are expanding their mental and emotional benefits to include mindfulness apps or virtual coaching.

Exercise daily: With the new normal, many onsite perks like the coffee station and cafeteria are being temporarily suspended to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread. For many people, this means loss of much needed breaks and social connection to colleagues. We recommend that people substitute these breaks with exercise. Exercise is proven to improve mental and emotional health. Even five minutes of climbing the stairwell or as the weather warms up fresh air can make a big difference.

Download a free mindfulness app or meditate daily: Even if your employer doesn’t offer expanded mental and emotional health benefits, there are plenty of good apps you can download to help you incorporate mindfulness and meditation into your daily life. Popular apps include Aura, Breethe, Buddhify, Calm and Headspace. This can help us be better at listening which is critical to being in the NOW and showing up with the best version of ourselves on our teams or at home. There are some general warning signs of mental health issues that we often brush away out of fear. It may never hurt to ask yourselves, your loved ones, or teammates if they are okay. Support often may be the thing that saves them.

Take a break: Time off is essential to help us heal and renew. Many people schedule time off around school holidays or family vacations or flights to exciting new destinations – all things that are largely gone for most Americans now. A common mistake is to let time off go away with them. Even though you can’t do many of things you would normally go with your time off, you can still go for hikes, organize a picnic, or just spend uninterrupted quality time with your loved ones are home.

In addition, if you are a manager or a leader in a team, here are some additional steps you can take

o Role model: Role modeling is a powerful and simple technique to get people to adopt new behaviors. As you follow the recommendations above – schedule a visit with Employee Assistance or start an exercise routine or use a mindfulness app or take a day off – tell your coworkers what you are doing or better yet show them. You’ll be surprised to find how it starts to catch on.

o Be vulnerable: At the start of an upcoming meeting or in your 1:1 checkins with your staff, acknowledge what’s hard about the pandemic for you.

o Really check in on people: Covid-19 is often blurring the previously harder lines between work and home life, as we take Zoom calls from home and our kids pop into our senior staff meetings. We can use these opportunities to connect more deeply with our teams.

Shantanu Nundy is an internal medicine physician and chief medical officer of Accolade

Jay Bhatt is an internal medicine physician and former chief medical officer of the American Hospital Association.

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