Back to the Jan-Feb 2022 issue

Promoting Employee Mental Health During COVID-19

By Rebecca Spartz

Two employees talking.The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected all of us, including city leaders. The pandemic has added demands and pressures to city leaders and managers as you’ve faced important responsibilities, such as:

  • Ensuring the safety of residents and employees.
  • Maintaining smooth operation of city functions, including emergency services.
  • Promoting peace while navigating potential conflicts caused by political polarity, which may have resulted in strained relationships between your public safety department and residents.

As a city leader, you’re obligated to lead through exceptionally challenging times. These challenges can take a toll on everyone’s mental health. It’s important to create a supportive environment where employees know they can get help if they need it.

Be aware

As you interact with employees, be aware of some of the more common changes a person experiences that could indicate mental health support is needed. These include:

  • Significant increase in worry or fear, or feeling excessively sad or low.
  • Difficulty focusing, confused thinking, problems concentrating, or racing thoughts.
  • Extreme mood changes, such as uncontrollable highs, unbearable lows, or uncontrollable rage.
  • Avoiding friends and social activities or dramatic changes in work attendance.
  • New difficulties understanding or relating to other people, or increased agitation or anger.
  • Changes in sleeping habits, feeling tired, and low energy (can’t sleep or need much more sleep).
  • Changes in eating habits, such as increased hunger or lack of appetite.
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs.
  • Thinking about suicide.

Normalize mental health

Care will be most powerful if it invites conversation about mental health. For example, consider offering educational sessions for employees that promote discussion about the effect stress can have on mental wellness. In addition to supporting such efforts, people in positions of authority can help by speaking about the importance of mental health and sharing their own mental health experiences. Doing so can have a normalizing effect. And that’s good — because experiencing increased stress, anxiety, depression, and similar emotions is normal. It’s also normal to have difficulty coping as a result of conflict, unpredictability, loss, and change.

Show support

As a leader, you can positively affect city employees by:

  • Ensuring they know what mental health benefits they have and that they are using them.
  • Developing a plan for filling staffing gaps and addressing shortages.

Another thing to consider is yourself. Leadership is demanding and often unforgiving. It can be rewarding, and it can be depleting. If you’re feeling depleted, use your mental health benefits. Allow yourself to acknowledge if you’re not OK. Be a role model. You’ll help yourself and others.

Consider the special needs of first responders

Because of the nature of their job duties, first responders are at increased risk of developing mental health conditions. And they’ve been particularly affected by the pandemic, social pressures, and in some cities, community unrest.

First responders may struggle to feel able or willing to seek support or to even engage in self-care. It’s important to make sure they are working shifts that allow them to get enough sleep and exercise, and to eat healthy meals. Your city can also provide financial support for wellness programs that include such components as peer support and mental health check-ins. These types of initiatives will help first responders maintain mental resilience.

As mentioned above, it’s also critical to make sure employees know about their mental health benefits. This is especially important for first responders. Be sure they have time to use their benefits, talk about their on-the-job experiences, take time off, and are well supported for the work they do. At the same time, assure them that if they seek mental health services, it will be private and no one at work will know about it.

Find support

Check with your health insurance provider to see what options they have for mental health care. Virtual therapy, where you can have a provider visit from the comfort of your own home or anywhere else, is often an option.

Here are some additional resources:

Rebecca Spartz is director of behavioral health at Medica, a partner of the Minnesota Healthcare Consortium (MHC) (www.mnhc.gov). MHC is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).