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The Importance of Mental Health Resources for Essential Workers—Now and In the Future
Most people’s mental health have taken a hit because of the pandemic—but essential workers on the front lines are especially struggling. While most people are feeling cooped up, restless and anxious, those who are “essential” and go to work every day in a mask and gloves (workers in healthcare, grocery stores, post offices, cleaning service, and retail store workers and more) are especially struggling.
Most essential workers go to work each day with a fear of getting sick, working with customers who don’t wear masks, and anxiety from hearing about coworkers who are falling ill or even dying from the coronavirus.
Additionally, there is the anxiety of accidentally transmitting the virus to loved ones at home, if they get the virus at work. Plus, many essential workers are not getting pay raises or paid sick leave—which makes this pandemic even more anxiety-inducing when a worker has to choose between a paycheck and protecting their health and home.
One only needs to listen to the stories of Amazon and Whole Foods workers who have expressed distain at the way the corporations have been handling the virus and safeguarding employees. Or, listen to the stories from EMT workers who cannot sleep at night, and who are constantly thinking about the patients they treat, or those they cannot save.
One CNBC article explores the need for mental health resources for workers, particularly critical workers in the American society. Vaile Wright director of clinical research and quality for the American Psychological Association, said she hopes the pandemic inspires more employers to expand access to therapy by phone or video.
Thousands of grocery workers have gotten the coronavirus, according to one article. Thousands more healthcare workers have fallen ill, too, says Business Insider and the CDC.
While mental health resources are extremely needed right now, many psychological experts and worker unions expect the need for mental health resources for essential workers to extend long after the end of the pandemic. Likely, workers will continue to deal with anxiety, depression and other challenges even as coronavirus cases level or decline.
Luckily, there are ways to get help without having much money to do so. For one, companies and organizations can work to provide their workers with the resources to improve their mental health. For example, Walgreens and Walmart say they’re encouraging workers to use company-provided benefits, such as teletherapy and referring them to digital tools that offer stress relief strategies, meditation exercises and peer support.
Walmart provides three free counseling sessions to its part-time and full-time employees through its employee assistance program, said Walmart’s senior vice president of U.S. benefits. It also offers Doctor On Demand, a telehealth provider to those who have benefits through Walmart.
But beyond the role of employers, local and state governments can verbally encourage citizens to seek help during these times, too. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo said thousands of mental health professionals have volunteered to provide free and confidential support through a new hotline and residents can use Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness app. New Jersey has launched a similar hotline.
“We cannot overlook the mental health impacts this pandemic is having on all of us,” said New Jersey’s health commissioner Judy Persichilli, at a news conference Thursday. She said some Americans are out of work, far from those they love and anxious as they risk exposure during essential work—which creates new worries.
Supportiv—a group that provides anonymous, peer-support services through a website—has started offering free service to health-care workers. Users answer the question: “What’s your struggle?” and the service matches them with live chats centered around a related topic. The group’s co-founder and CEO, Helena Plater-Zyberk, said each day about 9,000 people use the website versus the approximately 1,500 who used it before the pandemic.
It’s important to remember why essential workers are particularly susceptible to mental health challenges right now. For many essential workers, like retail workers for example, their jobs require that they work long shifts, for not much pay, around many customers—and usually while working on your feet. Under normal circumstances, these jobs are stressful. Given the current pandemic and health crisis, these jobs are exceptionally stressful.
Wright says she hopes the pandemic inspires more employers to expand access to therapy by phone or video, which she says is “just as effective as face-to-face” resources. In fact, it can eliminate some barriers many people face such as access in rural areas, concerns about anonymity or problems getting childcare to go to a session.
“Employers have a lot of power,” Wright said. “They’re negotiating huge, huge packages with these insurers and that’s something they need to advocate for.”
Workers have been trying to adjust to the global health crisis for months, and the pandemic will likely continue for some time. While mental health is crucial always, stress over time is what is most harmful to individuals. So while employers, organizations and local communities should always provide mental health services, there is arguably no more crucial time than right now.