It is highly likely that you know someone who is working the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. When you think of frontline workers, you may envision a nurse in scrubs or a doctor with his stethoscope. It’s important to remember that many other individuals are tirelessly working during the pandemic who are not doctors or nurses. These people include grocery store workers, delivery drivers, food service workers, EMTs, police officers, and janitorial staff.
From doctors to grocery store employees, workers are being traumatized on a daily basis and may be struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
What characterizes an essential worker is highly debatable among Americans. One thing we know for certain is that over the past several months, many people have been forced out of their jobs through furloughs and layoffs, while others have been expected to report to work as usual with the added risk of contracting the coronavirus. In fact, across the United States, more than 2 million grocery store workers have reported working in some of the most hard-hit cities across the country, and many of them have lost their lives to COVID-19.
Police officers, janitors, delivery drivers, food service workers, and EMTs are deemed essential and are unable to perform their duties through the screen of a Zoom call. People in these professions also risk their lives and expose themselves to the possibility of contracting the virus and potentially bringing it home to their families. For example, as of April 2, 2020, the Detroit Police Department had quarantined over 600 employees, and 78 had tested positive for the virus. Police officers have to respond to 911 calls as part of their oath to serve, and the same goes for EMTs. Janitors are needed to sterilize and sanitize places such as hospitals, nursing homes, and other high-risk places without the option of refusing.
As of April 15, 2020, as many as 9,300 healthcare workers have been infected with the coronavirus, and 27 have died from it. Each day, healthcare workers are interacting with people who are sick and highly contagious. They have to make life-altering decisions within seconds, and the toll that takes on their mental health can be astronomical. The pandemic’s effect on the mental health of healthcare workers may not be fully realized until after the pandemic.
It is no surprise that many essential workers (and nonessential workers) are reporting an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, burnout, and fear. Each day, essential workers interact with other people who either already have the coronavirus or could potentially have it. Fears about catching the virus, becoming ill, bringing the virus home to family members, and potentially losing their own lives are real concerns that essential workers live with each day.
Every shift, our front line and essential workers risk their lives and the lives of their families to help their community and their fellow human beings. These workers face unrelenting and daunting tasks each day and jeopardize their physical, mental, and emotional health.
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You probably know or love someone who is an essential worker. The worry and concern you have for them is valid and understandable. However, you can take several steps to support them during this time.
First and foremost, be patient and compassionate. Your loved one is highly likely to be experiencing extremely high stress, anxiety, and/or depression, which may make them more irritable, frustrated, or sad. Try to remember that you are not the cause of their increased stress and irritability. Additional things to consider include:
- Make them a favorite meal: Making someone you love a meal is one way to show your love and care for them; also, most people find comfort in food.
- Validate their stress and other emotions: Verbalize that you understand they are stressed out, and acknowledge that what they are doing is in fact very difficult. Validate that any emotions they are feeling are okay and make sense given the circumstances.
- Positively reinforce them: Acknowledge how hard they are working. Have conversations that focus on things your loved one wants to do when the pandemic slows down and they have time off; this includes talking about and planning a vacation.
- Let them know you love them: Send a text, make a phone call, leave a message, or mail a card. Sometimes the simplest acts can have the biggest impact.
- Lighten their burden: Offer to do something for them that makes their life easier. Examples can include picking up their groceries, making and dropping off cookies, or folding laundry that has been sitting on the kitchen table.
It is important that we all do our best to support our essential and frontline workers. The pandemic and the threat of COVID-19 can take a toll on everyone’s health and wellness. Remember that this situation is temporary, and, together, we will get through it.
Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.