A Manager’s Guide to Responding to Employee Anxiety about Coronavirus

Workplaces are entering uncharted waters as they try to figure out how to protect both the health of their employees and their businesses in response to a looming worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Company responses thus far have include halting non-essential business travel, cancelling professional conferences, having more employees work from home, forming task forces, dusting off emergency response plans, ordering increasingly stringent safety measures, and increasing the availability of hand sanitizers.

However, as the New York Times recently noted in a survey of business response to the virus: “no one has a playbook for this.”

And it’s not just health risks that have employees worried; there is also heightened concern about job security and the value of retirement portfolios as the stock market continues to be explosively volatile and recently logged its single worst day since 2008.

High levels of employee stress are detrimental to employee health and are a well-documented drag on productivity. Stressed employees are at risk for increased levels of resentment, anger and fatigue. This can lead to diminished teamwork and problems in the customer service and product quality domains.

So what can business leaders to help mitigate employee anxiety and stress during this difficult time?

  1.  Increase management visibility and continuously gather feedback from employees. Keep connected with employees whether they are in the office or working remotely. Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to tell you what they are thinking and experiencing. Listen to their suggestions. Share as much information as possible about the rationale for all management actions taken in response to the threats posed by COVID-19.
  2. Apply the skills you have learned in other change management situations. Change makes many people anxious. Schedule cancellations, alternative work arrangement, new safety measures etc., no matter how well-justified, are still changes. Provide encouragement and acknowledge strong effort throughout the entire process of adaptation. Positive reinforcement works and it doesn’t cost a dime.
  3. Understand the variability in individual employee responses and respond accordingly. One size does not fit all when it comes to the experience of stress and anxiety. Some employees will be much less concerned about the virus threat, and the company’s strategic responses to it, while other employee’s may seem to be bordering on panic. Remember you can consult with your company EAP about any employee you may be particularly concerned about .
  4. Send updated information to employees regarding the public health announcements and risk reduction recommendations. Have one person in the organization curate the most accurate, current and useful information about COVID-19 and disseminate it so that every employee doesn’t have to do it for herself. This may also avoid the problem of employees falling down the rabbit hole of internet misinformation and rumors about the virus.
  5. Practice mindful leadership. Mindfulness is now being taught and practiced in an increasing number of organizations to improve leadership effectiveness and performance. Mindfulness training goes beyond traditional leadership development programs which focus more on skills like strategic-thinking, problem-solving, giving feedback, leading change, building teams etc. Mindfulness is not so much a specific skill as it is a state of being like being energetic, alert, positive, curious, open-minded and self-confident.

The quality of leadership demonstrated during a crisis is remembered long after the crisis passes. Take advantage of this opportunity now to demonstrate your commitment to employee welfare and you may see it come back to you many fold in the future.

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