The past 18 months have been undeniably tough on American society, with more than 37 million people having suffered on some level from COVID-19 and more than 600,000 deaths attributed to it.
But the mental health toll likely is even more widespread, as forced lockdowns and isolation dramatically increased domestic abuse cases and addictions nationwide.
Now that the business world is striving to recover and figure out the best way forward for productivity, employers and employees alike have to deal with a fresh set of issues. Thankfully, there are plenty of skilled mental health professionals available to help guide them through the emotionally arduous journey.
As CEO of Chenal Family Therapy, Ken Clark, MA, LMFT, is a key figure in the Little Rock mental health industry, having received the Mentoring Excellence Award from The Investment News.
“We’re in the middle of a thing that is being referred to as the ‘Great Resignation,’ where we are seeing folks as the world reopens not just changing jobs, but changing careers,” Clark said. “They got a taste of what life could be like with better work, life balance, things like that. You know, that kind of facing death and mortality, all that kind of stuff, has made them really rethink.
“So I think broadly we’re going to see a bunch of turnover, which is going to be tough on businesses but probably great for employees in a lot of ways mentally and financially.”
One major issue that Clark anticipates workforces facing is a sense of disconnect. Because even if they’re in the office, workers are expected to remain distant from one another. With the basic human need for contact and interaction stifled, workers feel isolation, and this can result in diminished loyalty.
“This has probably lowered work drama in some ways, but it’s also resulted in a lower work connection, which makes people think they don’t have a work family,” he noted. “So overall, the apathy about jobs, the angst about jobs, the sense of wasted time, the sense of being stuck in a dead-end job, those things have all ramped up and are also leading people to and especially workers to action.
“I think employers are living in fear right now. If they enforce masks and vaccines, then employees that are already on the fence about leaving may tip over.”
Clark noted that Chenal Family Therapy is seeing “a huge spike in alcohol and other substance use,” and feels this is stemming from people being stuck at home. After all, it’s much easier to access a liquor cabinet in the house than to have a drink at the office, and families being forced to be around each other 24 hours a day creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
As a result, Chenal’s 200-member staff has been handling a tidal wave of new patients in addition to its sizable base of long-term clients. Clark calculates that it provided 100,000 hours of mental health service in the past year, and that client numbers have risen to 50 percent more than pre-pandemic levels. But there are changes in the way those services are rendered.
“We are noticing that the traditional 60-minute therapy session is a little outmoded in this environment and that there’s a lot of people who just need to jump on a Zoom call for 15 minutes,” he said. “We can give you a tool to go try with your family and then you go back to it. And so, I think we’re seeing a very needed shift away from the expectation of all therapy as an hour long, and the therapists love it.”
Another important consideration is finding a way to fit an appropriate amount of play into work life amid all the current stress. Without office pranks and water cooler gossip as part of people’s daily lives, people are getting fed up with interacting primarily via Zoom.
“If I would push employers towards anything, it would be to figure out how to help your people play right now, collectively or individually,” Clark said. “If you can do that, they’re going to be super appreciative and will continue to feel bonded to one another.”
To maintain healthy work environments, Clark recommends that employers have care coordinators who check in with each employee individually. He also believes the old notions of what constitutes a “normal” workplace no longer apply.
“I don’t think things will return to normal because we are in a new normal,” he said. “Everything that I’m hearing says that this is another six to 12 months, you know, of some kind of major impact from the delta variant and these different things. It takes 30 days to build a habit, and we’ve had 400 days of this.
“We need to think about the good things we started doing during this period and remember to continue those, whether it’s family dinners or walking your dog in the morning instead of just running out the door for work. We encourage everyone to sit down and dream about what is worth fighting for.”