By Tosheena Robinson-Blair, BSc, MSc
Owing to a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, one psychologist is urging essential workers to prioritize their mental health.
“There is a concept of shared trauma that can be applied to essential workers. They are a group of persons overlooked because of their position in society, their titles and functions, and the assumptions we make about their mental wellness,” said Dr Valerie Knowles, a clinical psychologist with 30-plus years of experience.
“Everybody is concerned about whether we have enough doses of vaccines left, but who is asking if there are enough essential workers remaining to push through this latest wave.”
While the economy has reopened, the workplace of an essential service provider never closed. Day in and day out they have patrolled streets, stocked shelves, reported the news, taken care of the sick, guarded prisoners and emptied the trash among other jobs.
Most essential workers may have made it through the deadliest pandemic in generations, but the potential toll on their mental health should not be taken for granted, said Dr Knowles who has worked in diverse settings ranging from primary schools to prison. Some essential workers, she noted, must cope with public expectations of perfection and when they fall short, face harsh criticism from society and superiors.
“Coupled with the pressure of unrealistic expectations, distinct organizational challenges can compound stress reactions,” said the mental health expert, who pointed to the impact of shift work on some families.
“Being always ready to get up and go ‘at the drop of a hat’ at any hour of the night, can destabilize relationships,” she advised. “Working in environments where continuous heightened alertness is required could also become problematic.”
Given the stigma attached to mental health issues in Bahamian society, many persons who may need help could be reluctant to seek it.
“They fear appearing weak to the public or their boss if word got out. Bahamian society tells us to heal ourselves, struggle in silence or just suck it up and move on,” said Dr Knowles. “It is especially important for employers in the public and private sectors to acknowledge the mental health sacrifices essential workers make every day and do their part to help employees navigate COVID-19 related stress and adopt coping mechanisms to combat elevated, prolonged work-related pressure.”
The psychologist identified “built-in triggers” that could alert individuals to mental health tipping points. She stressed these indicators were not signs of mental illness but signaled a need to take a break.
They include emotional numbness, heightened irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, increased risk taking, lack of concentration, personal negligence, “covering up rather than clearing up” negligence and out of character violations of the ethics and standards of the work organization.
“Patterns of these behaviours can indicate that action is needed to mentally restore balance. There is no need to wait until sleep deprivation sets in, relationships are fractured, judgment is severely impaired, and all sense of personal respect, competence and integrity are compromised.”
To those who suggest quitting or taking an extended vacation, Dr Knowles said both options just may not be immediately feasible for some essential workers.
“One of the easiest coping mechanisms to destress and restore balance is to share a traumatic experience with another team member. As simple as it sounds, it’s important to do this even when work schedules become hectic. Not thoroughly sharing feelings after bearing witness to a traumatic event can cause bigger problems to arise. Emotions become unknowingly pent up,” the psychologist noted.
“For instance, regularly watching persons die, writhing in pain, seeing families in distress, viewing mangled bodies or watching persons spend their best lives in a state of incarceration could affect responsivity.”
Dr. Knowles suggested the use of trained peer helpers, such individuals understand how to guide conversations and create opportunities to thoroughly air issues and explore healthy solutions before a situation escalates. The concept is ideal for those who work within an environment that stigmatizes those who seek mental help.
“A ‘trained peer helper’ is not a formal job title. This peer-support training can be built into the training and orientation for all functioning heads of divisions and team administrators. Managers usually know the most well liked, discreet individuals on their teams. Increasing the capacity of these persons to support team wellness can be a boost for the organization,” the psychologist explained. “There can be peer-trained helpers throughout the organization, that have no reporting obligations to anybody. They commit to assisting the team to recognize and respond to mental distress signals in a proactive, empowering intervention before the situation gets risky. It pays to troubleshoot and lighten the load of essential workers before full distress sets in.”