WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT Tommy Comer, EdD, chief human

resources officer at Commonwealth Senior Living, says senior living employees’ most powerful stresses can be tied to concerns outside the workplace. “I believe financial concerns, living

paycheck to paycheck, is the primary source of stress/anxiety,” Comer says. “What may be a nuisance to an executive could be life- shattering to our front-line employees. Car issues, schedule changes, can lead to major long-term decisions for our employees. As providers, we must recognize this by doing better by them.”

Implementing solutions The intensity of the pandemic stress has led to several companies either increasing their current levels of engagement with mental health services or finding new solutions: Add worker support to existing programs.

McCray says her work typically focuses on the mental well-being of residents and their families, but communities are adding worker support, as she is doing weekly for Prairie City Landing in Folsom, Calif. Give paid time off. “We encourage associates to take time to refresh,” Westeen says. Raise awareness of and services from employee assistance plans (EAPs) and other counseling. Westeen says CLC-Cappella’s EAP doubled the number of free counseling visits for employees, to 10. Chaplains also added virtual office hours for employees. Communicate that self-care is valued.

McCray says it is crucial to make it clear to employees that their mental health is impor- tant and that they should feel comfortable focusing on self-care. If workers understand they are not alone in their anxieties, she says, they are more likely to see their feelings as valid and be more willing to seek support. It also makes them feel valued and supported by their communities, McCray says, which reduces burnout and staff turnover. Train and educate leaders. Westeen says

the “new normal” may include training and coaching leaders to talk to teams and allow time for self-care, such as quiet time for deep breathing or discussions. “As an organization, our leadership team recently engaged in education on the impact of trauma in the workplace. We are explor- ing additional education/training for all people leaders.”

20 SENIOR LIVING EXECUTIVE JULY/AUGUST 2020 Get out in front—but stay in your lane.

McCray says one of the most consequential missteps in employee mental well-being strategies is being reactive rather than pro- active. The earlier that resources are avail- able, the better chance that communities can help before anxiety and stress takes a toll. But managers also must take care to stay in their lane, providing support without attempting to offer something more akin to therapy. Stop the stigma—for real. “Employees

often don’t want management or cowork- ers knowing their personal business and may also have concerns about the security of their job ‘if someone knew’ about their mental health challenges,” Stempel says. “Employers should strive to create an

open and supportive environment with the goal to build trust over time. Employers cannot force this; it needs to be genuine.

For instance, WellQor was able to help sup- port employees during a stressful manage- ment change. “There are always going to be curve balls

that are being thrown, and I think [provid- ers] are finding having support in place can really help in any period,” McCray says. Comer says it may sound cliché, but

the most pressing thing for direct supervi- sors to offer their charges is patience and understanding. “The old axiom of ‘leave home at home’” doesn’t always apply to senior living professionals, he points out. “Being attuned to when a team member may need a mental break, an extra break, can make all the difference.” Mills says communities that can make

their workers feel appreciated and special will take an important step toward building morale over the long term.

“Each person will experience stress, grief, and trauma dif- ferently,” says Debra Westeen, vice president of human re- sources, Christian Living Communities and Cappella Living Solutions. “Having a variety of support options will be key.”

Management needs to be able to offer strong EAP resources for employees in order to effectively balance the fine line between all professional and personal relationships and expectations in the workplace.”

Expanding effectiveness Comer says it is hard to predict the shape of change, but he does believe the experience with COVID-19 will change senior living’s approach to mental health. Resources such as emergency funds,

EAPs, expanding insurance for behavioral and mental health coverage, and “breather” days off may become more common. “Our industry is always sharing how

many seniors are battling depression, which is a fact, in hopes they will see us as a solution,” Comer says. “We forget millions of people regardless of age are battling depression—many come to work each day in our communities.” These offer benefits that go beyond the current crisis, McCray points out.

“I think that in this crisis people are

developing new support structures and new strengths, so my hope is that—and I think we're seeing some of this—there’s an increased recognition for the job of being in senior living,” Mills says. “I think that’s going to be something that really sticks.”


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration,, offers many guides and options for getting help., the website for Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D., ABPP, has multiple resources that can help staff cope with COVID-19 and beyond.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness,, has a COVID-19 resource guide.

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