How to support mental health safety for frontline workers

Workers dealing with an angry and scared public are feeling exhausted, burnt out

How to support mental health safety for frontline workers

The pandemic has created risky and stressful work environments for frontline workers, leading to high levels of burnout and concerns for their mental health and safety, according to Neal Woolrich, HR Advisor at Gartner.

“Working on the ‘frontline’ means facing patients and consumers who are confused, stressed, angry and even scared, every day,” added Woolrich. “With the pandemic now entering its third year, frontline workers are understandably feeling exhausted, burnt out, and in need of help.”

An example of this played out recently when Amy Halvorsen, a registered nurse at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, resigned to protest “chaotic and dangerous conditions” she and her colleagues have been facing as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps across Australia. Halvorsen made the decision to quit and go public because nursing staff in her workplace are “riddled with anxiety about what they’re walking into every shift,” reported news.com.au.

Halversen’s story is an example of the particular circumstances that frontline workers can face and having to deal directly with the public during a time of crisis inevitably leads to potential conflict that can be emotionally draining for workers. Employers need to provide clear guidance on how frontline workers should manage difficult conversations and interactions along with strong, zero-tolerance policies for mistreatment of staff, said Woolrich.

“Some organisations are even going one step further to support their workers by having dedicated team members who are trained to step in and diffuse stressful interactions. This takes some of the pressure off frontline employees, allowing them to continue with their vital work. Additionally, having a strong, zero-tolerance policy towards rude or abusive behaviour will assure frontline staff that their own wellbeing is valued and respected.”

Employers who brush aside or don’t openly acknowledge what may be legitimate fears and concerns of their employees are making a mistake that will have negative effects on the work environment and add to the stress, said Woolrich, who stresses the need to create an environment where employees feel that they can openly discuss their concerns.

Leading by example

It’s also important for organizational leaders to step up to provide role models and assurance that they understand what employees are going through and are monitoring the mental health challenges, according to Woolrich.

“Leaders that openly address mental or physical health challenges and share their own personal experiences of how they have been feeling or how they deal with stress can help others to also open up,” he explained. “The role of managers is also fundamental as they can act as a sensing mechanism to identify when their team members are struggling or feeling anxious.”

That doesn’t mean that managers don’t face their own challenges. Woolrich says it’s important to support managers themselves as they are often also dealing with the frontline work environment while trying to support their team members. This means providing them with the tools and freedom to prioritise what they need to focus which allows them to be more proactive in their approach to employees. What happens when an employee just can’t deal with the job on a particular day? This is where creating a safe environment for employees to feel comfortable sharing their concerns comes in, so the employer can correctly diagnose the issue, Woolrich told HRD.

“Once they have a better understanding of the issue, organizations should lead with empathy, reviewing how they can accommodate their frontline workers and offer solutions that support them. This could be in the form of an employee assistance program or access to a qualified counsellor to help overcome their anxieties.”

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