By Dan Gephart, June 17, 2020

A glimpse at the Internet during the coronavirus pandemic reveals people cutting their own hair, making their own bread, showing off their TikTok dance moves, and building elaborate Rube Goldberg machines.

Fun, fun, fun.

However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that much of our nation, if not the world, is besieged by stress. Reports of police brutality, rising unemployment, a volatile stock market, and the continuing pandemic are pushing many to the edge. One professor told Time Magazine that we’re suffering from a “national anxiety.” This is not a flippant remark. It’s the truth, and it’s frightening.

We all know the friend, colleague, or family member who proudly claims: “I perform best under pressure.” Well, that’s great. Go take a seat over there next to Michael Jordan and have fun comparing your stress-filled accomplishments. There are many people, including plenty currently employed by the Federal government, who must routinely perform their jobs under highly stressful situations. And they do it every day. Quietly, without fanfare. I commend them.

However, if you’re not required to take on inordinate amounts of stress, you shouldn’t. Stress is bad for the body. It can cause minor ailments like stomachaches, headaches, heartburn, tension, and it can lead to serious health issues like depression, heart attacks, and strokes. Stress weakens immune systems and makes the body more vulnerable to attacks, such as the one posed by COVID-19. Put simply: If you’re stressing out about the coronavirus, you’re making yourself more at risk for getting it.

Now, think about the amount of stress this pandemic has caused and then try to imagine what that means to those individuals already suffering from anxiety disorders.

Last month, we discussed three issues to consider as you prepare to return employees to the physical workspace – ADA, age discrimination, communication. The previous month, I wrote about the rise in pandemic-related discrimination. This month, I turn the attention to stress and anxiety-related disorders that will make the already difficult transition back to the workplace an even more taxing endeavor for some employees.

Most people get depressed at some time in their lives, especially if they have suffered a loss. But there are others who have clinical depression, which is a much more serious condition that ranges from mild temporary episodes of sadness to suicidal ideation or behaviors.

It’s the same with anxiety. Everyone gets a little anxious at times, such as when our favorite team is just a few yards away from the endzone with a playoff spot on the line, or when we have to make a presentation to our superiors. That anxiety is fleeting. That’s not the case for those with anxiety disorders. An anxiety disorder is a psychological disorder caused by excessive fear or anxiety. It can be severely debilitating, and it affects up to 30 percent of the adult population at some point during their lives.

Common anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Missions will not be accomplished if incapacitating stress runs rampant upon the re-opening of the workplace.

What can you do to address this challenge?

First step: Take care of yourself,  even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder. Shana Palmieri, a licensed clinical social worker, senior vice president of Behavioral Health and co-founder of Xferall, and FELTG Instructor, shared several tips for coping with pandemic-related stress in this newsletter a couple of months ago. Read that article and take it seriously. Personally, I’ve significantly reduced my social media time and rely on only a few reputable sources for pandemic-related news. That has made a huge difference. As Shana said: “We all must do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19 and engage in self-care to keep ourselves and our communities physically and emotionally healthy during these challenging times.”

Next step: Recognize that there is a mental health crisis in America and the COVID-19 pandemic is having a serious negative impact on that crisis. A vaccine, herd immunity, or a flattened curve may signal a close end to the pandemic, but the nation’s mental health crisis will still be here.

With employees’ return to work comes your responsibility to accommodate. Shana and FELTG President Deborah Hopkins will discuss accommodations for all behavioral health issues on the first day of Emerging Issues Week, which runs July 20-24. Some of the simple accommodations for stress are:

  • Allow for longer or more frequent breaks.
  • Provide additional time to learn new task or skills.
  • Allow flexible leave for counseling/ therapy.
  • Consider more frequent meetings with supervisor.
  • Provide stress-reduction programs through Human Resources or EAP services.

Lastly, communicate. When sharing plans for workplace reopening, provide facts. The return to work should follow a well-crafted plan with few to no surprises. And be honest. There are still nearly 1,000 deaths a day due to COVID-19, and the number of cases continues to rise. Ignoring the reality of the moment will only exacerbate stress.

Managing this mental health crisis in the workplace will be one of several topics discussed during the encore presentation of Federal Workplace Challenges in a COVID-19 World: Returning to Work During a Pandemic to be held on June 29. Shana and FELTG Instructor Ann Boehm will also cover telework,  leave and flexible work schedules, medical testing, employees who blow the whistle about COVID-19 related issues, reasonable accommodation, and everything else you’ll need to consider as you attempt to return the workplace to some semblance of normalcy.

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