A Manager’s Guide to Responding to Employee Anxiety about Coronavirus: Part 2

It’s been about four months since workplaces first started navigating the uncharted waters of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are now entering a new phase of challenges which includes bringing back some employees who have been working remotely. This change will to be difficult for some employees so this is a good opportunity to review what is helpful to say (and not helpful to say) when employees share their concerns and fears about the pandemic.

In a previous post on this subject I emphasized the importance of understanding the variability of individual responses to the pandemic. One size does not fit all when it comes to the experience of stress and anxiety but there are a few guidelines can keep you on track for being helpful when employees tell you about their fears.

  1. Avoid slipping into cheerleader mode. When someone tells you they are distressed there is a natural tendency to respond with a comment intended to make them feel better. Be careful here because well-meaning “cheerleader” responses can backfire. When you say things like “You can handle this” or “You’re going to be fine” the employee may feel like you are minimizing their issues. Comments like “Think positively” or “At least you still have your job” or “This will be over at some point” may make employees feel that you are subtly attributing their distress to their “attitude.” You don’t know that they “will be fine” so your response could result in the employee feeling misunderstood and unsupported.
  2. Don’t try to minimize employee fears. Employees probably already know that most infected people recover from Covid-19 so citing encouraging statistics doesn’t really help them to manage their anxiety in the moment.
  3. Don’t get into problem-solving mode unless specifically asked for advice. Avoid telling employees what you think they “should” do. “Should” statements can inadvertently communicate that you have not heard their real fears about health, safety or finances. Don’t give advice unless you are asked. Most employees will be looking for a supportive presence who can listen to what they are experiencing. Articulating our concerns to someone we trust is how we work out problems for ourselves.
  4. Reflect, validate and be curious. First reflect your understanding of what the employee tells you with statements like: “That must be very hard for you” or “I know you are feeling scared- I’m here to listen.” Next, validate what you hear and help the employee see their feelings as normal responses to extreme circumstances. As the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently phrased it “It’s OK not to be OK” in the face of the unrelenting challenges we are facing. Finally, be curious and explore what the employee thinks would help them process their anxiety or sadness. Don’t assume that you are supposed to have an answer.
  5. Make sure the employee feels heard. Take the time it takes to pay attention to the employee. If you try to have this conversation when you are distracted it can sabotage the conversation and generate negative feelings.
  6. Don’t be afraid to have a “do over.” If you slip up don’t worry. There is always time to resume a conversation that didn’t go as well. You can acknowledge, in a transparent way that your response didn’t seem to be as helpful as you wanted it to be and ask to try again.

If you are going to be talking to employees about their feelings make sure you have a handle on your own fears and concerns. Many of the unhelpful responses discussed here arise from discomfort with the topic. Remember your EAP is available to help employees directly and to help managers respond in the most helpful way possible.

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