What’s been playing out in Maryland’s long-term care arena as the coronavirus pandemic has spread has been all too common across the country.

As of the week of July 29, the state’s congregate care settings accounted for almost 14,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 2,000 deaths. There were yawning gaps in care, the price paid for the long-standing shortage of workers. When staff members complained of a different yawning gap in PPE equipment, it wasn’t uncommon to be told to bring their own. Not surprisingly, more than 3,000 employees of Maryland’s assisted living communities, nursing homes and group homes have contracted the virus, with 17 deaths.

When you look at the front lines of the war against coronavirus, you see embattled doctors and nurses in crowded hospital rooms, not necessarily nursing home nurses, aides and administrators caring for a population that is most vulnerable to the virus and, some might think, the most expendable. Between the physical dangers the staffs increasingly face and the heightened mental and emotional stresses, it’s no surprise that workers in the senior living and care sector consider themselves the “forgotten” on the front lines

The upshot is not unexpected. The mounting physical and emotional pressure may end up make a bad situation worse for the beleaguered senior care community. Increasingly facing staffing shortages (among other pressures) before the pandemic, too many are seeing workers skip shifts or just leave their jobs altogether. 

The best thing senior living and employers can do for their employees right now is steer them to the kinds of resources that are out there to help them cope with this crisis and how it’s affecting their emotions. The majority of states and thousands of licensed psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers across the U.S. are offering free therapy to healthcare workers who have been overwhelmed by the pandemic fallout. Some examples:

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the standard on March 21 with a statewide hotline, 844-863-9314, offering free mental health services to anyone needing assistance. It took only four days for 6,000 mental health professionals to volunteer their services.
  • Project Parachute started in Chapel Hill, N.C. to offer mental health resources to all frontline health workers, and it has grown to more than 500 volunteer therapists in 37 states. There’s no set format – sessions can be via phone, video or text – and there is no end-date. Those seeking assistance must, however, choose a professional located in their state.
  • In Michigan, MI Frontline Support unites licensed clinicians who offer free crisis and coping related resources to all coronavirus frontline workers, including health workers, grocery, delivery and mail carriers. Resources include hotline numbers for video group support, immediate support, meditative podcasts and more. 

Although such resources are interim, senior living and care operators should think about the longer term needs of their current staff and those they would like to attract when this storm eventually calms. The fact is that emotional issues and substance abuse disorders cost American businesses as much as $100 billion a year. Employee assistance programs, or EAPs, are an ideal way to deal with the issues that have only been aggravated since the pandemic – and can pay off by lowering absenteeism by 21% while boosting productivity by 14%.  

Organizations that already have an EAP in place should start promoting it aggressively as an option their staffs can use now. If not, these are the steps to take:

  1. Establish your EAP framework.  Start with the nuts and bolts. Who’s eligible? Employee and dependents, or is there expanded coverage for other family members? Consider whether to wrap the benefit into the open enrollment process or make it a separate benefits callout. Another consideration is whether to make it part of the onboarding process. Don’t forget to require an EAP utilization report in order to adequately gauge how services are being used and determine whether some types of services might require attention. 
  2. Assess EAP capabilities. In evaluating services, one critical concern is the quality and accessibility of the EAP’s emergency crisis care. (Test this with periodic after-hours calls to its behavioral health number.) Also important is its access to counselors trained in suicide prevention and substance use disorder treatment. What other resources does it offer? Does it have an online portal with a library with relevant resources your employees can easily access?
  3. “Sell” the program. With utilization rates averaging less than 7%, employees must be educated and informed on what the services are, who is covered, how and when to access its resources, and what the tangible benefits are. Slick tactics aren’t necessary. Simple fact sheets distributed with paychecks or posters with on-point messages along with EAP and crisis hotline numbers posted in common areas are effective. Face-to-face informational sessions are always useful, too.

We are facing an unprecedented health and economic emergency with COVID-19. With the resources to be found in EAPs, senior living and care employees will be better equipped to manage the pressures and continue to carry on.

Glenn Day is executive vice president and chief strategy officer for HUB International’s National Healthcare Practice. He holds the designation of certified insurance counselor and is also a past president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Greater Tulsa. In 2014, Day was awarded the Medical Protective Co.’s Buchman Award, which recognizes significant contribution in serving and providing solutions for the healthcare community.