Rutgers Employees Come Together to Battle Pandemic Stress

woman in protective equipment looking at a sample
The "Check You, Check Two" program serves as a reminder for frontline workers to take two minutes each day to check in on themselves and their colleagues.

Chantal Brazeau, chief wellness officer at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS), understands the stress frontline health care providers face during the global coronavirus pandemic that has taken the lives of nearly 10,000 health care workers across the country.

In response to the challenges they are facing, Brazeau is coordinating wellness initiatives for health care providers that she hopes will help them cope with this continuing stress. Created under the “Check You, Check Two” program, the wellness initiatives include virtual support groups and webinars focused on stress management.

“Wellness is about so much more than self-care. In a time of crisis, it’s about what we can do as an organization to ‘go back to the basics’ of stress management, reduce uncertainty and build community,” said Brazeau, the assistant dean for faculty vitality at New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School who has been coordinating multicampus opportunities for faculty and staff to support each other during the pandemic by reaching out and promoting physical and mental health and wellness.

She says COVID-19 has significantly impacted health care providers at Rutgers who serve on the front lines. While their efforts have saved lives and led to new diagnostic tests to detect and hopefully defeat the virus, Brazeau said, they have not been done without sacrifice.

“Some of our frontline workers are isolating away from their families. They are under tremendous, sustained stress all day. ‘Check You, Check Two’ serves as a reminder to take two minutes each day to check in on yourself and your colleagues,”  Brazeau said. “Health care professionals are very self-reliant people, so they tend to not ask for help – they respond better if their peers take the time to check in.”

Chantal Brazeau
Chantal Brazeau is coordinating wellness initiatives for health care providers that she hopes will help them cope with this continuing stress of working during the global pandemic.
Courtesy of Chantal Brazeau

Rutgers also offers a wide variety of other support mechanisms, including regular town halls, a hotline at NJMS developed by Petros Levounis and Cheryl Kennedy; Rutgers4U, providing employees with access to one-on-one support from a trained mental health professional; and Joyable, a digital wellness tool with access to coaching.

Brazeau also meets weekly with departmental “wellness champions,” such as NJMS' Rashi Aggarwal and Christine Rohowsky-Kochan, to discuss new ways to help staff and faculty destress.

At NJMS, departmental wellness champions also developed the tagline "Caring is Contagious" to help raise awareness of the importance of peer-to-peer support.

“Health care professionals such as nurses and physicians are so used to providing care for others that they often forget to care for themselves.  When they do reach out, they tend to turn to their peers for support, instead of seeking out formal mental health care,” said Aggarwal, an associate professor of psychiatry and the director of residency training at NJMS.

Christine Rohowsky-Kochan, a professor in the department of pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience at NJMS, said she has initiated weekly department virtual get-togethers “We check in on each other, talk about common concerns and nonwork-related topics and the plan for getting us back on our feet. These meetings emphasize our shared goal to recover from this crisis.”

Similar efforts are taking place at RWJMS where departments have been offering a wide variety of opportunities for employees to connect and de-stress.

As a department we have conducted daily Webex updates to listen to each other as we navigate this time of unprecedented uncertainty,” said Keith Lewis, chair of the department of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine. “Isolation may be a strategy for people to stay safe in COVID-19, but communication and reaching out to others is key for long-term emotional well-being. As a department, we stay united to gain inner strength, and frequently communicate to fight isolation and provide hope.”

Brazeau said she hopes that these initiatives will continue, even when faculty and staff return to campus.

“All of these programs need to be expanded and will be even more helpful after the crisis, as people take stock of what has happened to our world,” said Brazeau. “In addition to grieving for those we lost, people are also grieving the way things used to be. Nobody can do this alone and asking for help is not something we do spontaneously, but it’s so important, especially during this chaotic time.”

Brazeau said she will continue to host Webex support groups for the foreseeable future in order to provide Rutgers faculty and staff with the opportunity to evaluate what initiatives, programs or support are needed going forward to help the community heal.

“I don’t count participants. If we reach one person a day, that’s great. Every single life changed and every person that finds support matters,” said Brazeau. “If you’re struggling, talk to a colleague. Allow yourself to be able to share what you’re going through. It only takes a minute to let off steam and normalize that feeling. I think you’ll find you’re not alone."