How to Help Employees Manage Coronavirus Anxiety

by | Apr 8, 2020 | HR and Culture

“We are living in unprecedented times.”

It’s a refrain in nearly every marketing email in my inbox, and I’m guilty of writing it myself. Yet we say “unprecedented” for good reason. We haven’t seen a pandemic of this scale in at least a century. There are so many aspects of our current crisis that can breed anxiety, but uncertainty may be the one hovering over them all. The scale alone means no one is safe from coronavirus anxiety, so it’s a safe bet that no matter how your company is handling this crisis, your employees are anxious.

There’s no good way to predict what will happen next. So if it’s your job to raise morale and support employees, you may not be able to offer them assurances. That doesn’t mean you can’t offer support. A support system at work—yes, even a remote one—can give employees the strength to move through this new world with a little less fear. In this post, we’ll discuss a few strategies for supporting employees through “unprecedented times.”

Use virtual tools for connection

Whether they’re home alone or working with a family, your employees are likely eager for a distraction. While it’s tempting to cancel all your company happy hours, I’d urge you to simply move them online. Connection—even the virtual kind—has never been more important.

You never think you’ll miss the watercooler banter, but a bit of distraction can help us step outside our own anxieties. Since we moved to a fully-remote model to support social distancing, the HealthJoy office has enjoyed virtual happy hours with spelling bees and trivia, yoga sessions with local instructors, cooking classes with a local chef, and online “coffee breaks” in a chat room. Our operations manager, Mallory, has used video tools Zoom and Google Hangouts for these meetings, and employees are encouraged to bring partners, roommates, and kids along for the ride. As we all battle boredom in isolation, facilitating small opportunities for employees to casually chat can keep it at bay.

Remember employees’ individual challenges

I’ve been surprised to hear all the different ways my friends and family are feeling the strain of social distancing. Parents homeschooling children are dealing with incredible stress. So are employees in a difficult relationship, awkward roommate scenario, or even just a small space. Some of your employees are fighting loneliness. Remember that every employee is facing a different situation at home, and that understanding those differences can help you better support employees.

Start at the top. A few simple lines in your CEO’s next email acknowledging fear, uncertainty, and coronavirus anxiety can go a long way toward fostering an open culture. Consider encouraging managers to put a little more emphasis on the personal in their 1-on-1’s, as well. Yes, those of us still working are very focused on ticking off tasks. But understanding an employee’s unique personal challenges is an important step in helping them succeed during this challenging time. To do that, your employees need to feel comfortable opening up. It’s a communication challenge, to be sure. Luckily, we all have extra time on our hands.

Be as transparent as possible

You can’t promise employees the future will be smooth. After all, none of us know what’s coming down the pipe. Transparency doesn’t require you to lay out the future—it just means telling employees what you know when you know it. When employees trust that you’ll give them relevant, up-to-date information about the health of your company, they won’t have to spend time worrying about what you AREN’T telling them. There’s a reason transparency is a hallmark of strong company cultures. It’s never been more important.

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Give your employees wellness resources

With hiring likely frozen or scaled back at many companies, now is the time for focusing on the health and wellness of your employees. That could mean pointing toward free meditation resources, deals on healthy food, or gyms offering free online workouts. Don’t forget, though, that boredom is also a challenge for mental health and can lead us to stew on our coronavirus anxiety. If you’ve found a good free online game, puzzle, or documentary, why not share it with employees? Invite them to share with coworkers too. When you crowdsource activities, you’ll find far more to share. We’ve created a “virtual break room” channel in Slack where employees can share what they’re doing, eating, and watching to stay healthy and active. It’s a hit, and I’ve used it to find everything from lunch specials to local donation drives.

Emphasize your EAP

If you offer an employee assistance program (EAP), now is the time to make sure employees know that it exists. These free counseling services are arguably the best tools you can offer anxious employees during a national crisis, but most probably don’t know they exist. One survey found that usage of EAP programs remains at only 7% (see Why Employees Don’t Use Your EAP Program for more). That’s likely due to a combination of factors, like a lack of employee education and a confusing benefits delivery system. Don’t let your employees fall into that gap.

Send an email with clear, concise directions for accessing EAP. Ask your marketing department, or your EAP provider, to create a compelling graphic explaining the service. Post it to your company Slack feeds or your intranet. Do whatever you need to help employees understand this service is free, confidential, and available to help with coronavirus anxiety from home.

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Provide telemedicine support

On that note, telemedicine is a powerful support measure for employees right now, as well. Most telemedicine providers can offer preliminary support to patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms. Virtual services can keep healthy patients with other medical concerns from entering waiting rooms and contracting the virus. Telemedicine faces the same barriers as EAP—most employees don’t know it exists or how to find it. Improving your benefits communications around telemedicine is an important way to support employees. Since a majority of Americans are insured through their employers, companies have a big part to play in pushing this alternative to in-person care.

Though you won’t see employees around the office for a while, their wellness is more important than ever. By offering connection and support, you can help employees move through a period of waiting, and through coronavirus anxiety, with a little less uncertainty.

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