Taking care of people who are taking care of others

Parker Health Group finds its wellness programs have been big hit with its staff of nurses, aides and others

Who takes care of those who are taking care of others during the COVID-19 pandemic? Parker Health Group is trying to be the answer to that question for its own employees.

Officials at Parker, a long-term care facility that says it has a mission to discover ways to make aging manageable, said they realized early on during the pandemic that caring for the company’s own employees was important, too.

That’s why the Highland Park-based nonprofit has launched an emotional well-being program to give its nurses, dietary aides, recreation staff, financial services workers and others a space to share their experiences. Together, the more than 800 workers at its campuses in Piscataway, Highland Park, New Brunswick, Somerset and Monroe share the stresses and strains of serving others.

Jean Rebele, chief administration and talent officer at Parker, said attendance for each session is limited to a handful, but 100 or so employees overall have taken advantage of the recently launched program.

The confidential sessions are typically led by one of two Parker leaders, sometimes with the help of an intern from the Rutgers School of Social Work. Some are in person and socially distanced, but most are virtual.

“Our facilitators may begin a session by sharing something personal they’ve written in a journal, and then let others follow suit if they choose,” Rebele said. “Participants are given a few minutes to journal on a particular topic. Others may opt to simply sit, listen and relate.”

Rebele said the employees generally seem comfortable sharing their emotions with their coworkers. Some have found the sharing of self-care tips to be the most valuable aspect of the session. The supportive nature of the discussions and eagerness to incorporate self-care techniques gleaned from the sessions into their workday shows that personal feelings might one day become as ubiquitous in the office as the breakroom coffee maker.

“For some people, they’ve gained plenty of helpful suggestions to live life better,” Rebele said. “Others share, ‘You know, I haven’t made the time to take care of myself because I’m so busy taking care of my co-workers, the elders, my family.’ These sessions focus solely on our (employees) and their needs.”

Many companies are discovering that taking care of their employees’ behavioral health during the pandemic is a good business plan.

Poor mental health and stress can negatively affect employees’ job performances and productivity, their engagement at work, their communication with coworkers and their physical capability and daily functioning, according to the CDC.

Not surprisingly, mental illnesses such as depression are associated with higher rates of absenteeism, disability and unemployment.

To take it a step further, the CDC has found that depression interferes with a person’s ability to complete physical job tasks about 20% of the time and reduces cognitive performance about 35% of the time. Only 57% of employees who report moderate depression and 40% of those who report severe depression receive treatment to control their symptoms.

Rebele said the sessions for Parker employees take the work out of employees needing to seek out counseling. And since they are in the workplace, they are more convenient.

For Parker, however, it’s more about being there for their employees, who have been on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.

In elder care, the focus always has been on the care of the resident. Rebele said Parker has found employees are eager to get care for themselves, too.

“We ask: ‘What else would be helpful to you?’” she said. “Employees say: ‘A session on mindfulness, relaxation, breathing and stretching.’

“So, it’s given us some direction on ways to continue to care for and give our workforce a better opportunity to care for themselves.”