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Yakima workers focus on mental health as they return to the office

A Barber’s Craft owner Ramiro Herrera, right, gets a haircut from Easton Malvaney in his shop Friday.  (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic)
A Barber’s Craft owner Ramiro Herrera, right, gets a haircut from Easton Malvaney in his shop Friday. (Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Ella Foster Yakima Herald-Repubic

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 people in sight.

Today, Herrera looks out his window to see restaurants bustling with people and coffee shops allowing people to sit inside. His barber shop has seen an increase in customers.

Customers at the barber shop have opened up about their stresses and mental health struggles during the pandemic. Some are excited to go back to work and some are sad they have to leave the comfort of their homes, Herrera said.

“From what I’ve heard from my customers it (went from) ‘Hey, I’m going back in the office once or twice a week’ to ‘I’m back in the office a couple days now’ and now it’s ‘I’m back in the office full swing,’ ” Herrera said.

As many workplaces ask employees to return to work in person, there’s been a renewed focus on employee mental health in this time of transition.

“We’re entering probably one of the strangest periods of ambiguity and tension and uncertainty in modern history,” said Kira Mauseth, clinical psychologist at Seattle University, during a state Department of Health COVID briefing earlier this month.

Mental health tools

To reduce anxieties about returning to work, coworkers should be supportive and intentional about caring for each other in the workplace, said Ron Gengler, chief clinical officer at Comprehensive Healthcare in Yakima.

“Work culture will change because of the pandemic, but it also should always continue to change to be more accepting and inclusive,” he said. “Change is designed to help improve us.”

Teams should focus on asking each other questions, Gengler said. The way we ask questions matters, for example saying, “help me understand” rather than “why did you do this.”

“Take the stance of a desire to learn instead of a desire to be critical,” he said.

Many people will come out of the pandemic having experienced mental illness. One in five Americans will experience mental illness each year and more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People should practice healthy coping mechanisms when they are not experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, so those tools are available when they need them, Gengler said.

“If someone calls me and is having an anxiety panic attack, I tell them, ‘Please walk outside and tell me the first flower or plant that you see. Now describe it for me,’ ” he said. “I’m focusing them on a distraction and their anxiety decreases because your brain is now engaged with your frontal lobe.”

Many people also are returning to work carrying the trauma of deaths in their families or social groups due to COVID-19.

“We’re going to run into people in our work setting who have had a loss,” Gengler said. “We’re not going to solve a lot of people’s grief. We just need to be available.”

Typically, when a coworker’s family member or friend dies, they take a few days off before returning to work and receiving the support of their co-workers, Gengler said. During the pandemic, it’s been 18 months of grief in isolation for some people.

Growing closer from far apart

Jacob Butler, marketing manager at 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 not able to talk with coworkers in person. Butler returned to work full time in June after working four days a week at home and one in the office for 14 months.

“I am definitely a people person. I don’t think any of us realized how dependent we can be on other people until we’re in that situation where we don’t have anybody,” Butler said. “There were days when I just wanted somebody else in person to speak to and see expression beyond a Zoom call.”

Butler said the mall’s team has gotten closer during remote work. Since Zoom calls involved employees from offices across the West Coast, team members formed friendships with people they wouldn’t necessarily talk to in nonpandemic times.

“I would say we’ve gotten tighter as a team. We are definitely checking in on each other’s mental health more,” Butler said.

After going through a year of remote work, the team feels more like a family, Butler said.

The Yakima Valley Mall has seen a significant increase in customers this month.

“We’re seeing really great traffic and some of the tenants are reporting some incredible data as far as the traffic goes, so we’re seeing that boost in people coming back,” Butler said. “It’s a testament to how people are bouncing back.”

A Barber’s Craft in downtown Yakima was shut down for four months from March to June of 2020. Herrera said about 30% of their regular customers didn’t feel comfortable visiting a barber during the pandemic. Herrera and his coworkers were excited to return to work last summer.

COVID-19 put people in a more guarded situation, Herrera said, so he wanted to ensure people felt like the barber shop was a safe environment. Herrera said his shop has been referred to as a “cheap therapist” where people tend to open up and speak what’s on their mind.

“Obviously COVID-19 created a lot of different stresses, but one you often hear about is financial stress,” he said. “How do you alleviate that while they’re paying for a service? I would love to be able to give a free haircut to everybody, but at the end of the day, everyone’s gotta have some type of profitability.”

Herrera has noticed people are a lot happier and more relaxed when they come into the shop these days.

And he’s tried to create a work environment where his coworkers check in on each other, he said.

“Usually if I see or notice anything, I try to check-in if they need to take the day off or they need to take a longer weekend or maybe just go for a walk to get some fresh air,” he said. “I’m very intentional about making sure to be watchful for that.”

Sharing experiences

For some, like Kristen Charlet, communications and community relations manager for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, it’s been challenging to find the mental strength to reach people and have engaging conversations on video calls.

Her job prior to the pandemic was social, and involved talking to community partners each week. She misses the coffee chats and casual conversations with coworkers and clients, she said.

Charlet said it’s important to recognize the trauma people went through alone while working remotely.

“So many people have been lost or financially destroyed by this pandemic,” she said. “It’s taken its toll and pretending like everything is quote, ‘going back to normal,’ it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some trauma involved in that change.”

The mother of one of Charlet’s coworkers died from COVID. The death transformed him to become a big advocate for public health and mental health, Charlet said.

Her coworker spoke publicly about his experience at a virtual all-staff meeting with more than 200 people.

“I was bawling through the whole entire thing,” Charlet said.

Charlet said it’s important to be transparent with coworkers and normalize the conversation about mental health.

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