Pandemic Takes Toll on Mental Health

Pre-shift wellness checks and access to counseling can help employers care for their teams.

April 10, 2020

NEW YORK—Social distancing, intensive cleaning regimens and the stress of working in customer-facing jobs is taking a toll on the mental health of employees worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal report. Some officials are warning of a mental health crisis looming on the horizon.

“Psychologically, this is our 9/11,” Emilio Del Bono, mayor of Brescia, Italy, told the Journal. “In our individual and collective memories this disease has ripped us away from our dear ones and deeply marked our psyche.”

The Crisis Text Line, which offers free help via text messages, has had a 40% bump in traffic over the past four weeks in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. “The mental-health issues are an echo of the physical-health issues and the echo could even be worse,” said Nancy Lublin, CEO and founder. (Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line.)

The impact of COVID-19 with its social distancing and quarantines will likely trigger depression, irritability, confusion, anger, emotional disturbance, insomnia and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Officials have taken notice. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo noted that more than 6,000 mental health professionals will provide free mental health services.

To help employees cope, many companies are relying on their employee assistance plans (EAPs) to offer guidelines on how to set daily routines and check-ins and juggle work and childcare, while maintaining their overall health and exercise habits, CNBC reports. Some companies are providing additional mental health counseling services, along with free access to mindfulness apps like Headspace, which is offering free support during the current global crisis.

For frontline employees deemed essential—like c-store workers—daily wellness and mental health check-ins can help ease stress levels.

Chipotle, for example, has added mental health check-ins to the chain’s usual wellness check-in with every employee reporting for a shift. Field managers ask them if they have any illness symptoms or are caring for someone at home who is ill—and also ask how they are faring emotionally, CNBC reports. “It’s that emotional piece beyond how you are feeling,” said Marissa Andrada, the chain’s chief people officer. “It’s also ‘How are you doing? What’s going on?’” she said.

How much of an impact the pandemic will have on our collective psyche will depend on how long these lockdowns continue, coupled with how severe the economic ramifications are and how many people die from the virus.

“Sometimes EAP support is enough, but people with depression, anxiety and PTSD often need to see a medical provider,” Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, told CNBC. “Employers have to recognize that this is coming and talk to their health plans about how they’ll equip primary-care providers to address mental health and increase their network of behavioral health professionals.”

On a practical level, assuring employees that they’ll be able to keep their jobs and their paychecks through the crisis is another way companies on solid financial footing can immediately reduce anxiety. For businesses that face a shakier financial future, it’s important to be transparent with staff.

“Leaders can still be empathetic and say: ‘We don’t know what’s happening week to week, but here’s what we do know now,’” organizational psychologist Katy Caselli, founder of Building Giants, told CNBC. “And then tell them when you’ll be able to share more information.”

John Chambers, a former Cisco CEO who has managed through 9/11, the financial crisis and the SARS epidemic in Asia, said to treat employees “like you would like to be treated yourself.” He added, “Explain to employees, this is how much we have in the bank; this is how we are trying to reinvent the company and save as many jobs as we can.”

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.