If you find yourself having a case of the “COVID-19 Blues” this holiday season, know that you’re not alone. Across the country, local, state and federal leaders and health officials are urging families to not have large gatherings during the holidays, and the City of Houston is no different.
City of Houston employees like Grace Kilgore have felt the impact of the pandemic. The 65-year-old safety advisor said she realizes her age places her in a category with an increased risk for illness from COVID-19, and she has had to learn how to adjust her lifestyle.
“When life changes and I need to adapt, I find new favorite ways to live,” she said. “I attribute it to an ability to adapt to different situations which I have developed over the years. I see the new situations as challenges. I like challenges, so I get creative in ways to adapt.”
This is where the Employee Assistance Program comes in. They offer free confidential counseling to employees and their immediate family members who feel overwhelmed and alone by the pandemic stress. Along with counseling, the EAP offered through GuidanceResources provides an array of resources to help employees manage daily life or plan life events, including resources for seniors during the pandemic.
“With one call to GuidanceResources, the city’s older employees can get access to the holistic care and well-being resources they need. From telecounseling and retirement planning resources, to vetted referrals for senior services, food delivery, and everything in between, we’ve got you covered,” said the GuidanceResources team.
EAP Manager Annetta Vaughn said the program has seen a 40% increase in requests for services and support since March when large segments of society shut down. Due to the pandemic, EAP Clinical Team members report that they are now offering both teletherapy and face-to-face counseling for employees.
“Mental health does not discriminate by age, race, religion, etc.,” she said. “The City of Houston continues to mirror the trends in the nation for severe depression and areas of addiction which results in unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
Kilgore said she has used the EAP through the years for stressful times, especially at work or during a life crisis.
“I feel like someone is listening who understands. Also, they can give me ideas for handling stressful times — ideas like reframing situations. For example, instead of seeing COVID isolation as separation, I see it as an opportunity to do things I like,” she said.
Kilgore’s “new normal” now consists of ordering groceries online and having them delivered to her home, shopping online and letting the packages stand in a certain spot for a few days after arriving, and picking up her medications using the pharmacy drive-through instead of going inside.
She said she has also found creative ways to stay connected with her family and friends using social media tools like Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as writing emails and letters.
“We also send photos to help us keep up to date. Calling regularly helps. If we visit, we stay outside socially distanced and wear our masks. We use hand sanitizer also. Because we’re huggers, we also do a ‘virtual hug,’ which is hugging ourselves and calling out, ‘virtual hug,’ ” she said.
Although it is difficult, Kilgore said she has embraced the change.
“I actually like these new ways of doing things because I can get other things done or have fun while waiting for my items to arrive. I can spend more time in my garden and with my pets. I have more time to read and do my hobbies like jewelry making and drawing. Solitude is not overrated. I enjoy it,” she said.
Kilgore also said reading Benefits Pulse has been particularly helpful for her because it lets readers know that “we are not alone in this pandemic.”
“It is easy when one is isolated to feel alone. Feeling alone in isolated situations can cause a person to become more stressed and think no one else is going through the hardship or is aware of what is going on,” she said.
“Communication of any kind — such as social media or the Benefits Pulse newsletter — bring people closer. We can see we are not alone in a difficult situation. People can share their methods of coping. We can become closer and the world is not as scary.
Vaughn said the EAP recommends employees adhere to the guidelines around COVID-19 and wear a mask, be socially aware, and be comfortable asking for support.
“Look at what you can do, not at what you cannot do. We offer Tuesday Tips (a new weekly email focusing on mental health topics) that allows employees to normalize emotional struggles. We promote mental health, not mental illness,” she said.
“It is ok to not be OK—we are here for you. We are a free confidential resource for you and your immediate family.”