tsBennett

Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett

As if working for a living wasn’t already stressful enough.

Then came 2020. The year America couldn’t sleep.

Help awaits, though. Lots of people could benefit.

This Labor Day Weekend arrives with Americans shouldering a gamut of new complications just to draw a paycheck since the coronavirus pandemic hit. More than 29 million had to draw jobless benefits in mid-August, according to federal labor stats. Many who are working are doing so from home as workplaces adopt new routines to avoid spreading COVID-19. The percentage of U.S. workers who’ve ever telecommuted for work rose to 49% last month, a Gallup survey showed.

Such change can bring anxiety. The job twists don’t end there.

The virus threatens the health and well-being of “essential” workers. Supermarket cashiers encounter scores of people on their shifts.

First-responders do too. Nurses, doctors, techs, orderlies, EMTs and rescue crews treat the ill daily. A total of 1,077 health care workers nationwide have lost their lives to COVID-19, Amnesty International reported Wednesday. 

And, millions in other occupations face yet another virus-imposed dilemma. Their jobs can’t be done at home, but they also can’t afford daycare for kids whose schools have shifted to remote learning.

Not surprisingly, 58% of the U.S. workforce claims to be “burnt out,” up from 45% in the pandemic’s early days, says a survey by Eagle Hill Consulting, a Virginia consulting firm.

Folks still working and those suddenly jobless are all living in a country in turmoil over a bitter political divide and a quest to end racial injustices. Angry memes, divisive slogans and video clips of anti-mask tantrums fill social media feeds on our cellphones. Scrolling Facebook is like sitting in on the Costanzas’ Festivus rituals. People finish their workdays wondering if they’ve contracted COVID-19, and worry about the safety of their kids, grandchildren and elderly relatives.

Virus precautions also have curtailed workers’ contact with their usual go-to support systems — friends, family, church and community groups.

This unsettling season has led 72-year-old Bill Treash to think about his late grandfather, a World War I veteran who also lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. “I wish I could’ve talked to him about how they made it through 1918,” Treash said Friday.

Treash leads the Wabash Valley Chapter of the AFL-CIO’s Southern Indiana Area Labor Federation, which encompasses 49 counties and more than 30,000 members. Uncertainties in the COVID-19 pandemic “are stressful on everybody right now, and for their families,” Treash said.

There are outlets for relief.

All of those intertwined frustrations can be addressed by trained mental-health counselors manning Indiana’s new “Be Well Crisis Helpline.” It’s free, confidential and available to all Hoosiers by phone 24 hours a day, every day. Callers can simply dial 211 and select option-3 to reach a counselor.

The service went live on July 20, funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant through June 2021.

“We’ve been seeing a really good response,” said Kelsi Linville of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration Division of Mental Health and Addictions.

The helpline received 1,433 calls from Hoosiers statewide from July 20 to Aug. 31. The average call lasted 21 minutes. People ages 40 to 64 — the veteran end of the working spectrum — accounted for 55% of the calls. Many dealt with distresses amplified by the pandemic. Callers felt isolation and withdrawal (35%), anxiety or fearfulness (31%), sleep issues (31%), fatigue (26%), decision-making (28%), difficulty concentrating (25%), intrusive thoughts and images (25%) and sadness (24%).

More than a third (34%) received a referral for additional mental health or substance-use services, according to the FSSA.

The state’s “Be Well Indiana” website also contains resources, a mental-health assessment quiz and tips for coping with stress, anxiety and depression.

Hoosier workers, and anyone else for that matter, can benefit from the strategies.

That includes a person whose steady 8-to-5 job disappeared, and then had to adapt to a gig work schedule, like delivering food. Even with such a disruption in routine, it’s important for those workers to create new routines, Linville explained. If they previously listened to podcasts on the early-morning drive to work, then they might now listen to the podcasts on a walk around the block before starting their driving shift.

The key is “finding another way to mark the transition to another work day,” Linville said.

The sleepless can find help, too.

One remedy sounds almost too simple, but it works, said Michele Orndorff, director of education for Mental Health America of West Central Indiana in Terre Haute. Restless workers should keep a notebook at their bedside, and write down all of the things they’re grateful for, whenever sleeplessness hits.

Orndorff also recommends “grounding” techniques, compiled by Mental Health America. Each uses a person’s five senses and helps them divert attention from fears of the future and toward the present moment. Walking barefoot in the grass is one example. Another is exercise, which could involve jumping with the kids on a trampoline, walking a park or lifting weights. Drinking an full glass of water resets the mind, too. Slow full breaths release tension, as well.

All are beneficial and easy, like brushing your teeth.

“Look for the small things,” said Orndorff, who has 21 years of experience in mental health care. “It’ll change your life. I promise.”

For Linville at the Indiana FSSA, her own time spent in physical activity through the pandemic “has been huge.” She also emphasized the value of small steps to refresh a worker’s spirits.

Workers coping with job-related adversities can reflect on past difficulties, when they were between jobs, Linville said.

“That can spur thoughts of, ‘You know what? I made it through before, and I can do it again,’” she said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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