Workers at the Geisinger, like thousands of other healthcare workers across the region, are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The stress level of not knowing which patients may be a carrier of COVID-19 when they arrive for treatment is great.

To help one another during the pandemic, Geisinger has developed the RISE program, or Resilience in Stressful Events plan, to help employees cope.

“There are a lot of things that happen in the hospital setting that can be very stressful,” said Dr. Charlotte Collins, a clinical psychologist and director of Geisinger’s Center for Professionalism and Wellbeing. “And then COVId-19 hit and we said, ‘uh oh,’ we need this up and running now.”

Collins said they were working on the plan for a year prior. 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.

“There have been a lot of challenges,” she said. “We were fortunate to not have the huge surges that many other places have seen, but there’s worry about contracting the virus or taking it home to others. There’s a lack of uncertainty as well as a lack of control and just general concern and anxiety about what is going to happen.”

She said managers were asked to nominate employees who they thought would be a good fit for the program.

“We want someone who can stay calm during a situation. Someone who can listen well and someone who can be a calming presence,” she said.

About 100 volunteers are currently serving in the program from across the system.

“When we have cumulative stress over time, which is what this is, we can become injured and that’s when we have symptoms,” said Collins. “That’s when our stress levels go up and we have functional impairment because the stress has gone on.

She said healthcare workers are very good at taking care of others, but often not very good at taking care of themselves.

“They tend to work harder,” she said. “And so sometimes, they aren’t taking care of their own healthcare and they get worn down.”

The Centers for Disease Control 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.

The RISE program is an example of the types of programs employers have developed to help employees cope with stressful events.

Smaller employers have different options.

Laura Foytik, a Clarks Summit psychotherapist, said it’s most important to provide employees with insurance information to employees — essentially what is and what is covered.

“Right now, many insurance companies are starting to offer telehealth services and that includes mental health,” she said. “Many employees are not aware of that, whether it’s mental or physical health appointments. Don’t be afraid to share those workplace policies. It allows flexibility.”

Foytik said employers should be training managers on how to spot mental health problems, especially given the pandemic. Changes in mood or behavior can be warning signs.

“Whether that’s in a group setting or one-to-one contact,” she said. “Now, that might be a phone call or Zoom meeting just to check-in with people to see how they are doing. Having those gentle and compassionate conversations can go a long way in making sure the mental health of your employees is in good shape.”

Collins said the program will continue and could even expand, given the future of the coronavirus.

“We still don’t know if there could be another surge,” she said. “We have to stay on alert for a really long time. It’s that sense that there’s no end in sight.”

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