By Pamela Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, FNAP
Jan. 12, 2022
As the pandemic nears the two-year mark, your staff, like yourself, may feel weary. Your staff may have stresses and frustrations, both from the pandemic and from issues beyond the pandemic. The weight of those issues can adversely affect the patient care and service they are able to deliver.
My practice has an in-house psychologist, my mother, Joyce Miller, PhD., who works out of our office.
Here’s how to spot potential employee mental health challenges, and how to work with employees to find solutions.
Your Employee, Like Yourself, Has a Life Outside the Office
It’s easy to forget that your employee’s life doesn’t begin when they sit down at their desk in your office, and it doesn’t end when they leave at the end of the work day.
Family crises, such as an ailing parent or struggling child, or marital issues, can have a negative impact on the employee’s mental health and on their work.
Flying Off the Handle Easily
If you notice that an employee is frequently becoming frustrated, and seems to have less patience, it could be a sign of a mental health struggle. In addition to underlying issues like bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, the employee may be experiencing anxiety issues due to the increased stress of the pandemic or a family problem.
A Formerly Responsible Employee is Suddenly Forgetful
Let’s say you have an employee who used to be the most reliable and on-the-ball person in the office. They were so on top of everything that they kept you and their colleagues on track. Suddenly, they start forgetting work they were assigned, and tasks in the office start falling between the cracks.
It might be that this employee has so much on their mind, and is filled with so much anxiety or stress, that their mind no longer has room for all the work in their professional life that needs to be done.
An Employee You Never Had a Problem With Before Is Now Fighting with Co-Workers
It’s easy for people to get on each other’s nerves in an ongoing uncomfortable situation like the pandemic. Maybe they’re tired of the all-day masking while doing their jobs in your office, or tired of the additional cleaning procedures you have had in place since the start of the pandemic.
You notice they are arguing over petty things like whether they or a colleague forgot to do a task, or they have started picking fights with co-workers, challenging them about their work or asking them to do additional tasks that are not in their job description. Maybe they have started asking their colleagues to do some of their work, rather than do it all themselves.
They may even seem to be looking for things to argue about, like questioning co-workers about the number of days they have taken off and then comparing it to the number of days they themselves have taken off and starting an argument about it.
As unpleasantly combative as this employee has become, it may be a sign that they need help. They may be fighting with others as a way to deal with bottled up anxiety and tension.
The Employee Has Lost Weight, Has Low Energy & Seems Generally Unwell
Has one of your employee’s appearance changed for the worst, so that you are worried they are physically ill? Physical illness could, indeed, be the culprit, but it also could be a mental health problem.
Assessing Mental Health
The employee may have started drinking heavily or using drugs, and is coming into the office experiencing the after-effects of that new habit. They may be slower at doing their work, or even appear hung-over, confused or just “out of it.”
What Do I Do to Help My Employees?
The first thing to do is always to sit down one-on-one in private with the employee and express what you’ve noticed. “Susan, I noticed that you’re not yourself lately. Is everything OK?” The employee may then open up immediately, letting you know some of the stresses and anxieties they are facing. Or they may deny that anything is wrong. “I don’t know what you mean,” they may respond.
“You’ve always taken such pride in your work, and for the last month or so, your energy level seems to have dropped and you’ve forgotten things you never would have forgotten in the past.”
If the employee continues to deny there is a problem, you can reassure them that you are there to help, and then provide information that can guide them to a physical and/or mental health check: “I want you to know I’m here for you. It might be a good idea to make sure everything’s physically OK. Do you have a primary care doctor that you could go to for a check-up? If not, I can give you the names of a few good ones near where you live. I also have a great psychologist, who works right in our office, in case you, or one of your friends or family, could use the help.”
You also can work with the employee to find a solution to work-life balance problems. If the employee tells you they are overwhelmed at the moment with personal life obligations, you could suggest that you work together to find a way for that employee to temporarily cut back their work hours, or if possible, shift the hours they work, maybe coming in earlier and leaving earlier or vice versa.
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It also is worth asking whether there is anything about how your office operates that they feel could be changed to create a better, more manageable workflow without negatively impacting patients and others in your office. As your employees are on the front lines of your office’s operations, they may even have ideas that you never thought of.
As you reach out to employees who seem troubled, and try to work with them to find solutions, it’s also important that you keep your eye on what most matters in your office–the care of your patients. It’s also OK to let employees, who no longer are able to do their jobs effectively, or who are disrupting office life, know that their behavior and work performance will have to change–and to set timelines for making improvements.
Whatever anxieties and stresses you and your employees are experiencing, it’s always your patients who are your top priority while in the office.
Pamela Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, DPNAP, has a solo optometric practice in Highland, Calif. She holds a law degree and a therapeutic license, is California State Board-certified and glaucoma-certified to prescribe eye medications, and offers comprehensive vision care, contact lenses, visual therapy and low vision services. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org.