Staying Well

Joan McGuire

As employees work from home under stressful conditions, wellness coaches adapt their strategies.

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While plenty of businesses have workplace wellness programs, the Covid-19 pandemic presents new health challenges that employees and employers did not plan for.

Two independent studies from Stanford University and freelancer platform Airtasker find working from home increases productivity in employees, but these results come from non-pandemic conditions. 

For telecommuting employees, people who lost their jobs and those managing work and child care due to school closures, stress from Covid-19 has affected not only their productivity but their mental health too.

According to a recent analysis by insurance comparison platform Quotewizard, Oregon has the highest rate of depression in the country: 25% of Oregonians are experiencing some form of depression and 88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the past four to six weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Jennifer Lundman, who is both a board-certified wellness coach and social worker, says wellness practices have to shift priorities if they are going to help people stay mentally well during the pandemic.  

Lundman serves as the wellness coach for the FIT Project, a free wellness program for families with school-age children at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. 

Coaches are health care professionals who support their clients in making healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, reducing stress and managing a chronic illness. Like nurses, physicians and psychiatrists, wellness coaches take a board exam to become certified. 

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Lundman says her experiences as a social worker helped to prepare her for the traumatizing conditions of Covid-19. 

“Covid has thrown people into a state of paralysis. It’s an environment of trauma. People are working to this max capacity level all day long, and that’s where wellness unravels,” says Lundman. “All this ‘turn lemons to lemonade’ talk during the pandemic is B.S. It shames people who are not ok. It’s ok not to be ok.” 

The parents she works with have to fill three roles: as an employee, parent and educator because of school closures. The added pressure means that while coaching usually focuses on sustainable health and behavioral changes, wellness practices need to shift to focusing on getting by day to day and celebrating small achievements. 

“We ask, ‘What is in my bubble of control? What can I control to help my wellness?’ They have to move on from feeling helpless and hopeless and focus on the things under their control,” she says. ”I can control if we take a walk with my family. We can celebrate that small win.”

Some health insurers employ full-time wellness professionals, including coaches, to keep medical costs down through preventive means. 

“Everyone is in survival mode right now,” says one board-certified wellness coach who works for a large medical insurer and who chose to remain anonymous. “I have a client whose sleep schedule is out of whack, so we switched to coaching over email since it was easier for them. Covid has revealed how adaptable our profession can be to meet members where they are at.”

Leigh-Ann Webster, executive director for the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching, says the profession had already gained popularity with insurers and businesses because of the rise of telehealth. 

The virus has helped expose the need for wellness practices to help mental and physical well-being, she says. Most recently, wellness coaches joined forces with the coalition Coaching for Healthcare Heroes, which offers free wellness consultation and coaching for health care workers. 

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” she says. “People are really struggling with uncertainty. Perhaps they’re not exercising like they normally would or maybe they’re not eating well. They want to feel more resilient, more in control.”

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