Home Commentary The Well-being of Your Employees Matters

The Well-being of Your Employees Matters

By Molly Ritvo

In addition to the ongoing pandemic, another crisis plagues many individuals: a mental health one. According to Mental Health America, the pandemic has increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation. More recently, as the United States enters yet another pandemic winter, the surgeon general warned that young people face “devastating” mental health effects. 

Jennifer Jacobs, owner and human resource consultant at Brattleboro-based Adaptiva HR, a holistic human resource and Employee Assistance Provider is concerned about the lack of resources availabile to employees. 

“We encourage employees and employers to find ways to bring in additional support as needed during this colder time,” Jacobs says. 

Pandemic Anxiety

Sabrina Sydnor Leal, LICSW, a Burlington-based school social worker and therapist, says “I have noticed increasing anxiety and depression across the board from all of my patients this winter, and to be honest, my colleagues, friends and family as well,” she says. “Many Vermonters have gone back into quarantining, isolating and social distancing as they watch Omicron run through their schools and places of work.” 

“This isolation plus the negative wind chills make it very difficult to access the community that everyone needs to lead their most balanced and healthy lifestyles,” Sydnor adds. “This increase in isolation and continued hardship is also exacerbated by a reduction of mental health support in Vermont. Private practice clinicians have exorbitant waitlists, psychiatrists are beyond full and school support staff are on the decline. As the need rises, the help falls and everyone is feeling the pinch.”

Dr. Justin Knapp, MD, Medical Director at Washington County Mental Health adds: “The COVID pandemic has added anxiety about our individual well being and the wellbeing of our loved ones and a more overarching general anxiety to what were already increasing levels of anxiety.
. . . Counseling people about how to cope with anxiety and depression during this crisis has been especially challenging.”

Seasonal Affective Disorder

According to the Mayo Clinic, common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) include low energy, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, feeling sluggish and hopeless, and losing interest in activities previously enjoyed. Some individuals may experience feelings of depression and worthlessness. In the workplace, individuals suffering from SAD might experience less productivity, decreased levels of engagement, and even isolation from colleagues. 

“We don’t need to beat ourselves up for feeling this,” explains Jacobs. “We need to be more gentle with ourselves and others.”

Jacobs encourages employers to remind employees to take breaks, especially in mid-day when sunlight is stronger. Jacobs also encourages employees to remember that they are not alone in feeling this. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “millions of American adults may suffer from SAD, although many may not know they have the condition.” Additionally, SAD occurs more often in women than in men and is more common in those living farther north (such as in Vermont) where winter daylight hours are shortened.  

Leal adds that it’s helpful for Vermonters to remind themselves — and each other — that the pandemic and winter will eventually end. “Lean into the mentality that this pandemic comes in waves and while we may not be able to gather like we have during certain pockets of this pandemic, those times will return. Make plans for the future anyways and lean into that hope.” 

Creating a Culture of Caring

Employers can support employees this winter by encouraging employees to utilize their Employee Assistant Program if they have one. 

“Because many organizations are still working remotely, it’s more important than ever for managers to check-in with their teams,” she says. “Consider sending out a wellness newsletter. It is also a good idea to encourage staff to turn off emails on the weekends and to promote casual human interactions, such as a walk or virtual happy hours,” she says.

In non-pandemic times, Jacobs encouraged employers to place mental resources in high-traffic areas, such as in bathrooms and in break-rooms. In this remote work-culture of the pandemic, these resources can become invisible. “We hope that employers are able to continue to support their employees so everyone can benefit from a healthy workforce and more positive communities as we head-into another pandemic winter,” adds Jacobs. 

To learn more about seasonal affective disorder, visit mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651

If you need immediate help and are in Vermont, text VT 741741 or visit mentalhealth.vermont.gov/services/emergency-services/how-get-help

Molly Ritvo grew up in Montpelier and currently lives in Burlington. She works as a communications specialist at Adaptiva HR, and is working on a novel.