Talking it out

Being open and honest is the first step in tackling the rising number 
of mental health issues left behind in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.


man mowing golf course
Though golf course management has long been a high-stress occupation, the pandemic exacerbated some preexisting stressors — like course overuse and persistent labor issues — to cause it to be even more stressful. Photo by Scott Hollister

Mental health has become more prominent in the public consciousness recently, and with good reason. The coronavirus pandemic produced plenty of sobering statistics, from the worldwide death toll to the economic burdens shouldered by many.

And as workforces in all industries continue to cope with the lingering effects of the pandemic, the statistics related to mental health cannot be ignored. The isolation that people have experienced in the last 21⁄2 years has increased stress and anxiety about the future, both in and outside of the workplace. With more than 80% of the global workforce feeling that the pandemic negatively impacted mental health, the number of employees reporting symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders has increased by 11% since 2019. There has also been an increase in substance and alcohol use and abuse.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on various issues related to mental health, but that it is only now becoming a hot topic only perpetuates the stigma and taboo surrounding it. Mental health issues were common prior to COVID, affecting one in five adults, and with the increase in reported stress, depression and anxiety, it’s likely that this number will increase.

As a result, we should feel as comfortable talking about mental health as we do our physical health; we need to eliminate the stigma. And since we spend approximately one-third of our lives at work, it’s imperative that we improve the discussion surrounding mental health in the workplace to make it easier for employees to get the organizational support they need before reaching a crisis point. To put it in dollars and cents, mental illness and substance abuse cost employers an estimated $80 billion to $100 billion each year when not addressed.

Burnout on the rise

Multiple studies have shown that being outside and undertaking physical activity are ways to combat situational depression and anxiety. Golf obviously checks both of those boxes; the game has always provided a great outdoor experience, as well as physical activity. The growth golf has seen since 2020 is a clear sign that more individuals are seeking out activities that can improve their overall mental health.

However, with that growth comes challenges, particularly in the arena of golf course management. Turfgrass managers have been challenged by issues such as overuse of the course and the need for additional maintenance and the strong, reliable workforce to carry that out. Unfortunately, like many other industries, golf is struggling with a lack of applicants and eligible candidates to be part of the course maintenance crew, resulting in fewer staff members willing to take on more work.

Ultimately, this contributes to the stress that today’s workforce is reporting, which impacts overall mental health and creates higher rates of burnout and turnover.

Burnout is not a new phenomenon to superintendents, but with the increased demands of the job and the lack of bodies to help with the workload, the number of course maintenance workers leaving is increasing. A direct impact on mental health, burnout is yet another argument for the necessity of open and honest conversations about the topic and creating reliable help-seeking environments.

emotional health chart
Just as there are many trauma triggers, there are several common symptoms of trauma of which to be wary. Illustration courtesy of Lori A. Hoffner

Trauma impacts mental health

Finally, let’s talk about trauma. Traumatic events can leave psychological symptoms long after any physical injuries have healed, and psychological trauma can cause a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms. Different levels of trauma include:

Acute trauma, resulting from a single stressful or dangerous event.

Chronic trauma, resulting from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events, including cases of child abuse, bullying or domestic violence.

Complex trauma, resulting from exposure to multiple traumatic events.

For superintendents, it’s not just the ongoing stresses of the pandemic and the excessive workloads many are now facing. These combine with traumatic events that all golf courses can face — floods, fires, even vandalism to equipment and greens, along with the recovery necessary to bring a course back from such events — to create a level of trauma. These types of events impact mental health, and unless we are willing to talk about it and seek out support, it has potential to become a mental health crisis.

Action items

In addition to normalizing the conversation around mental health, there are other ideas that will further reduce the stigma.

Identify resources that your organization offers to provide support, such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or other behavioral health service.

Empower employees to help provide solutions that will best serve them.

Offer training to staff that addresses mental health concerns — the Mental Health First Aid program, Question-Persuade-Refer (QPR) or safeTALK for suicide awareness and Resiliency at Work.

Develop workplace ambassadors who know how to talk with their peers.

Help employees reduce — not just manage — stress. Self-care practices, for example, are important processes in which every individual can engage.

It’s important to remember that mental health is closely connected to every area of well-being. Our physical health, financial wellness and social support systems heavily influence our state of mind. When employees feel like their whole selves are recognized in the workplace, they are more engaged and productive.

We, for the sake of our workforce’s mental wellness, should be willing to go above and beyond so that they can lend their best selves to the business.

Lori A. Hoffner is the principal with Supporting CommUnity, which offers presentations and support on topics ranging from staff development to mental health. She is a regular presenter at the GCSAA Conference and Trade Show.

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