Prioritizing Employee Mental Health During and After COVID-19

Prioritizing Employee Mental Health During and After COVID-19

The Mount Sinai Health System facilitated a multipronged approach to providing emotional support to its health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

4 min read

Last spring, when the Mount Sinai Health System was flooded with COVID-19 patients, the health and well-being of frontline employees were increasingly at risk. The Health System’s leadership facilitated an aggressive, multipronged approach to emotional support for Mount Sinai’s health care workers. This involved mental health crisis and frontline support teams, small support groups via Zoom, resilience workshops, individual screening and coaching for stress and mental health problems, referrals to experienced clinical providers, and a free mobile app known as the Wellness Hub to let employees monitor and gauge their behavioral health. These mental and emotional health support services were part of an overall effort to support employees in multiple life domains. 

“We basically created a program around what we call ‘mental health PPE’ because we knew our employees needed personal protective equipment for their minds, as well as their bodies,” said Sabina Lim, MD, MPH, Vice President, Behavioral Health Quality, and Medical Director, Regulatory and Government Affairs, at the Mount Sinai Health System.

Powering this COVID-driven support network was a proactive mindset and an urgent need to engage employees—from doctors and nurses to housekeeping, security, and transport­—before a mental health crisis could gain a foothold. To that end, Dr. Lim created a five-tier model of emotional support encompassing a wide range of existing and new emotional health supports from various departments. This ranged from immediate mental health crisis response teams to phone lines that help employees navigate the many resources available to them.

A key component of this model was the “Mental Health Liaison” program. “We started this program as a kind of humanitarian mission for our colleagues,” said Dr. Lim. There were nearly 150 psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and mental health counselors assigned to two- or three-member teams that proactively engaged employees of all disciplines in 57 units and six emergency departments across the Mount Sinai Health System.

“We knew we couldn’t just wait for employees to come to us,” said Dr. Lim. “The fact that the mental health liaisons generated more than 1,000 contacts in just three months speaks to the enormous need for this effort.” What began as a confidential point of contact via text, email, or phone expanded as the need grew to these volunteer support teams rounding at all hospitals several times a week.

  • The ongoing trauma of this pandemic was taking a heavy emotional toll.

  • We couldn't just wait for employees to come to us.

At the same time, Deborah Marin, MD, the George and Marion Sokolik Blumenthal Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, was appointed Director of the new Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth to address the ongoing psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on health care workers. The first of its kind nationwide, this center collaborates with a host of Mount Sinai programs, including those organized by the Office of Well-Being and Resilience, Human Resources, and the mental health services offered through the Department of Psychiatry. The center’s Wellness Hub app allows employees to confidentially journal how they are feeling on any given day. They can complete questionnaires regarding their behavioral health and resilience, receive immediate feedback about how they are doing, and get direct access to services provided by the Center.

“We knew that the ongoing trauma of this pandemic—the economic impact, the fear of getting infected, the fear of infecting our loved ones—was taking a heavy emotional toll on all of us,” said Dr. Marin. “That made it more important than ever that we put in place a full and complementary range of support programs that let our employees know we’re here for them.”

Among the center’s most-in-demand programs have been its resilience workshops. Launched in July and conducted virtually in light of social distancing protocols, this series of 11 workshops offers workers mindfulness and cognitive therapeutic interventions, and activities that promote physical and spiritual health and relaxation strategies. Specially trained peer groups of social workers, chaplains, and others lead the sessions. According to Dr. Marin, feedback on the 45-minute workshops has been exceptional as these groups have helped employees develop resilience plans of their own in the face of the ongoing pandemic.

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Deborah Marin, MD

Deborah Marin, MD

Director of Mount Sinai's Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth, and the George and Marion Sokolik Blumenthal Professor of Psychiatry

Sabina Lim, MD, MPH

Sabina Lim, MD, MPH

Vice President, Behavioral Health Quality, and Medical Director, Regulatory and Government Affairs, Mount Sinai Health System