FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Should mission essential employees be tested? What’s expected of employees who are high risk but needed on-site? And what do statistics cited in the news really mean? Those are some of the tough questions Defense Logistics Agency Occupational Health Program Manager Dr. Jade Spurgeon helped agency leaders answer as employees adjusted to workplace changes early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first wave of emails from concerned employees rolled into Spurgeon’s inbox by early February. When widespread telework began in March, she was receiving around 300 messages a day. Workers wanted to know how they could protect themselves and their families. And leaders sought her guidance on how to maintain DLA’s mission despite closures and social distancing.
“A lot of people were really scared about what they were hearing in the news and supervisors were trying to outline ways to keep employees safe while they continued doing their jobs,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to assist employees working in our warehouses all the way up to the DLA director.”
Spurgeon manages health-related policies and applies occupational health laws and practices to the agency’s workforce. She’s board certified in preventive medicine and is a flight surgeon for the Air National Guard, but doesn’t provide medical treatment at DLA.
Her first contributions to the agency’s COVID-19 response included guidance published on DLA’s website to inform employees of health resources like the Employee Assistance Program and workplace flexibilities. Spurgeon also researched methods and processes for testing employees when leaders questioned whether it was necessary early in the pandemic and is now updating leaders on vaccine trials.
The daily reporting of case numbers throughout the country has prompted questions on how DLA’s statistics compare to those of the general public. She cautions that the agency’s statistics may seem harsher because it has a small denominator of only 26,000 employees compared to 360 million across the United States.
“Even one of our employees getting this disease or passing away from it has a much greater impact proportionally,” she said, adding that the risk at DLA is higher than in the general population due to its average employee age being 50 to 55.
Supporting on-site operations
Joe Brooks, chief of operations for DLA’s Agency Synchronization Operations Center, relied on Spurgeon to optimize safety as employees maintained on-site operations at DLA’s headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Moving some employees to alternate worksites helped, but she advised the team to also increase cleaning, rearrange desks and touch as little as possible in common areas.
“At the Fort Belvoir location, for example, they have to go through four doors to get to a bathroom. So they’d go all the way out, wash their hands and then have to handle all those door knobs to get back in,” she said.
Spurgeon and DLA’s industrial hygiene program manager, Laura Cox, developed a solution: hand sanitizer on the pull side of the door, where employees must use a hand rather than an elbow or shoulder to open it.
Spurgeon also hosts an “Ask the Doctor” session during ASOC meetings for senior leaders.
“She’ll come in and answer anybody’s questions about COVID-19 and what they can do to better prepare themselves, their workplace and their family. She’s been an absolute hero if you ask me,” Brooks said.
The doctor reviewed over 20 reconstitution plans outlining employees’ return to work at DLA Headquarters and its major subordinate commands, ensuring they incorporated guidelines by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Defense Department occupational health policies.
Quelling employees’ fears
DLA employees have also emailed her asking for advice on how to deal with the possibility of returning to work when they’re terrified of being infected.
“Not to downplay the loss of life and seriousness of the situation we’re in, but a lot of people are overwhelmed by the news articles they’re reading and the posts they’re seeing on Facebook,” Spurgeon said. She recommends employees limit their exposure to news and balance their intake of negative news by focusing on the good or countering the negativity by reading articles with opposing views.
“Say you’re scouting through articles and find something that sounds bad like ‘Coronavirus cases at a new high,’ you read it, then go back to your news feed to find other things that confirm that data until it seems like everything is imploding,” she said. “Rather than giving you helpful data to cope, it increases anxiety and stress and makes you less resilient.”
She stressed the need for employees who feel sick to stay home.
“There’s this idea that taking sick leave means you’re not tough or dedicated enough, or you’re trying to get out of something,” she said. “But we’ve shifted into an era where it’s okay to stay at home if you’re feeling poorly to help prevent the spread of a potentially deadly virus.”
Weight gain – the ‘Corona 20’ – is another side effect she hears employees complain about. To counter newfound habits of stress eating and increased couch time, she suggests employees use meal planning tools and walk around their neighborhood at lunchtime. As a mom to three school-age children and a demanding work schedule plus her Air National Guard duties, Spurgeon said she understands employees’ challenges. The hot yoga, monthly hair appointments and family vacations she once relied on to relieve stress are on hold, replaced by family walks and gardening.
“You can’t help but be hopeful when you see things growing,” she said. “And even though we don’t have dates, we’re planning other trips so we have something to look forward to.”
Employees should also stay connected with friends and family even if they can’t visit face-to-face, Spurgeon continued.
“It’s so important at this time for people to feel they’re connected, that there’s meaning to their life and they’re important to other people and the mission,” she added.