If you were to look out the window of Ramiro Herrera’s barber shop on Yakima Avenue a year ago, you would have seen empty roads, a business or two open, and no one in sight.
Today, Herrera looks out her window to see crowded restaurants and cafes that allow people to sit inside. His hairdressing salon has seen its clientele increase.
Customers at the hair salon spoke about their stress and mental health issues during the pandemic. Some are excited to return to work and some are sad to have to leave the comfort of their homes, Herrera said.
âFrom what I’ve heard from my clients it (ranged from) ‘hey, I go back to the office once or twice a week’ to ‘I’m back in the office for a few days now’ and now it’s ‘I’m back in the office at full blast,’ Herrera said.
As many workplaces require employees to return to work in person, the emphasis has once again been placed on employee mental health during this time of transition.
“We are probably entering one of the strangest periods of ambiguity, tension and uncertainty in modern history,” Kira Mauseth, clinical psychologist at the University of Seattle, said in a COVID briefing from the state health ministry earlier this month.
Mental health tools
To reduce anxiety about returning to work, colleagues need to support and care for each other in the workplace, said Ron Gengler, clinical director of Comprehensive Healthcare at Yakima.
âThe work culture will change because of the pandemic, but it should also always continue to change to be more tolerant and inclusive,â he said. âThe change is designed to help us improve.
Teams should focus on asking questions, Gengler said. The way we ask the questions is important, for example saying âhelp me understandâ rather than âwhy did you do thisâ.
âTake the position of a desire to learn instead of a desire to be critical,â he said.
Many people will come out of the pandemic after suffering from mental illness. One in five Americans will suffer from mental illness each year and more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People should practice healthy coping mechanisms when not suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, so these tools are available when they need them, Gengler said.
“If someone calls me and has an anxiety attack, I say, ‘Please come out and tell me the first flower or plant you see. Now describe it to me’, he said. “I focus them on a distraction and their anxiety decreases because your brain is now engaged with your frontal lobe.”
Many people are also returning to work with the trauma of deaths in their families or social groups due to COVID-19.
âWe are going to meet people in our workplace who have suffered loss,â said Gengler. âWe are not going to resolve the grief of a lot of people. We just have to be available.
Typically, when a family member or friend of a coworker dies, they take a few days off before returning to work and receiving support from their coworkers, Gengler said. During the pandemic, it was 18 months of mourning in isolation for some people.
Get closer from afar
Jacob Butler, Marketing Director of Valley Mall in Union Gap, experienced the death of an extended family member in December 2020. Butler was working remotely at the time and was unable to speak with colleagues in person. . Butler returned to full-time work in June after working four days a week at home and one in the office for 14 months.
âI am definitely a sociable person. I don’t think any of us have realized how much we can be dependent on others until we’re in this situation where we don’t have anyone, âButler said. “There were days when I just wanted someone else in person to speak and see an expression beyond a Zoom call.”
Butler said the mall team got closer while working remotely. Since the Zoom calls involved office workers from across the West Coast, team members made friendships with people they wouldn’t necessarily talk to in non-pandemic times.
âI would say we got tighter as a team. We’re definitely checking each other’s sanity more, âButler said.
After spending a year working remotely, the team feels more like family, Butler said.
The Valley Mall has seen a significant increase in customer numbers this month.
âWe’re seeing really big traffic and some of the tenants are reporting some amazing data in terms of traffic, so we’re seeing this increase in the number of people coming back,â Butler said. “It’s a testament to how people bounce back.”
A Barber’s Craft in downtown Yakima was closed for four months from March to June 2020. Herrera said about 30% of their regular customers did not feel comfortable visiting a barber during the pandemic. Herrera and his colleagues were delighted to return to work last summer.
COVID-19 put people in a more guarded situation, Herrera said, so he wanted to make sure people feel like the barbershop is a safe environment. Herrera said her store was called a âcheap therapistâ where people tend to open up and say what they think.
âObviously, COVID-19 has created a lot of different stresses, but the one you often hear about is financial stress,â he said. “How do you reduce that while they’re paying for a service?” I would love to be able to give everyone a free haircut, but at the end of the day everyone has to have some profitability.
Herrera has noticed that people are much happier and more relaxed when they walk into the store these days.
And he has tried to create a work environment where his colleagues check each other out, he said.
âUsually if I see or notice something I try to check in if they need to take a day off or if they need to take a longer weekend or maybe just go for a walk to get some fresh air, âhe said. “I am very intentional to make sure I am vigilant for this.”
For some, like Kristen Charlet, communications and community relations manager for the Washington Department of Health and Social Services, it has been difficult to find the mental toughness to reach people and have engaging conversations on video calls. .
Her work before the pandemic was social and involved talking to community partners on a weekly basis. She misses discussions over coffee and casual conversations with colleagues and clients, she said.
Charlet said it was important to recognize the trauma people have gone through alone while working remotely.
âSo many people have been lost or destroyed financially by this pandemic,â she said. “It’s taken its toll and pretending it’s all a quote, ‘get back to normal’ doesn’t mean there isn’t trauma involved in this change.”
The mother of one of Charlet’s colleagues died of COVID. Death transformed him to become a great advocate for public health and mental health, Charlet said.
His colleague spoke publicly about his experience in a virtual all-staff meeting with over 200 people.
âI was bawling throughout the whole affair,â Charlet said.
Charlet said it’s important to be transparent with colleagues and normalize the conversation about mental health.