Mental health well-being of employees is on the mind of many companies.

In the early days of the pandemic, many employers struggled with getting mental health services for their employees under control – frontline health care workers were among the first to be hit as they dealt up close with those who had contracted the coronavirus not knowing what its lasting implications would be – if they survived.

Geisinger Health System started the RISE program, or Resilience in Stressful Events, to help employees cope.

“I think things now look pretty good,” said Dr. Charlotte Collins, a clinical psychologist and director of Geisinger’s Center for Professionalism and Wellbeing.

She said they had been working on the plan for a year prior to the start of COVID-19. She calls it a “care for the caregiver program” and is open 24/7 throughout the Geisinger Health System.

The program is open to any employee who is having trouble coping with the sudden onslaught of issues surrounding coronavirus – from issues at work to struggles at home.

“We did a good job taking care of our people and built a lot of resources including and especially RISE,” she said. “I think the services were out there for people and we had people take advantage of them. And that’s the really good news.”

However, Collins said the cautionary tale is that some people who put their head down and did the work, may now notice some trauma as we come out of the pandemic.

“We’re being very proactive about that,” she said. “People have let us know what they need.”

Collins said during one of the COVID-19 spikes, when COVID floors were full and ICU beds were sparse, the staff let her know that while they wanted to use resources available under RISE, but they didn’t have time to take lunch — coupled with long hours and extra shifts.

“They didn’t have time take a break,” she said. “We went directly to them regardless of where they were in the health system. We put together volunteers who checked in with our employees. That was well received and it’s something we are going to continue for the near future. There’s a lot of emotional exhaustion and we want to be there for people.”

Collins said about 100 volunteers are currently serving in the program across the health system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the pandemic to be stressful for many Americans and could affect sleep patterns, increase stress and anxiety, changes in sleeping or eating patterns or even worsen current medical conditions.

Collins said going forward, they are analyzing how the program will look in the future.

“When there’s not a pandemic, we want to encourage and increase that participation when times are tough for them,” she said.

She said there’s no clear data on how many people take part in the RISE program and individual issues are all kept confidential. Geisinger employs about 23,000 people across the region.

“There’s a barrier and a stigma around this issue,” said Collins. “Many people don’t want to talk about it. Especially health workers because we think we are tough. And we are, but it helps to talk. It really does.”

Dr. Tiffany Griffiths, a clinical psychologist with offices in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre areas, said the pandemic has opened up a new conversation about mental health in the workplace.

“I think a lot people were at their breaking point,” she said. “And they needed to talk to someone. It’s a time of uncertainty and everyone is on edge.”

She said in her practice she unfortunately has to turn people away because she’s so busy with clients – a client base that’s only increased during the pandemic.

“Employers may have a tough time finding someone to talk with their employees,” she said. “They need to be aware of that before opening the door and making the suggestion of individual therapy. It’s a big hurdle.”

Griffiths said group therapy is an option – especially online.

She said simply asking people ‘how are they doing’ and ‘what are they doing’ to decrease stress in their lives is a good first step to talking about mental health in the workplace. She said helping people maintain a sense of normalcy is also a good place to start.

Griffiths said anxiety has been the biggest red flag during the pandemic in the clients she’s seen — that includes eating and drinking more heavily as well as interpersonal relationships and sleep difficulties.

“There’s a lot of depression,” she said. “A lot of those people have those symptoms made better by socializing and ‘belonging,’ which have almost evaporated during the pandemic.”

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