The COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting tremendous stress on many employees due to its the uncertainty associated with it and the unprecedented nature of the fallout. The primary difference between “healthy” stress and “unhealthy” stress is that unhealthy stress is fueled by the inability to control a situation. According to this definition, the COVID-19 pandemic is a textbook case example of an event that causes “unhealthy” stress.

For the sake of simplicity, “unhealthy” stress will be referred to simply as “stress” for the reminder of this article. Stress can wreak havoc on an organization. It erodes positive attitudes, employee productivity, attendance and sets the stage for damaging disagreements. These risks are heightened when employees are collectively under elevated levels of stress, as they are right now.

Regardless of how much tension there is in the air – yes, even if it is thick enough to cut it with a knife – there are measures companies can take to help employees cope with stress in a healthy way.

Take Proactive Steps 

There is a process leadership can follow to help employees feel at ease during stressful times. It consists of three steps:

  1. Instill confidence in the management team by remaining calm, providing up-to-date, accurate information as well as future actions and being honest
  2. Be transparent about the risks the situation presents and the actions that will be taken to mitigate them
  3. Train employees on the measures they can take to reduce their risk

Above all, it is critical to keep the lines of communication open. People crave information during a strenuous time because it helps them feel less powerless. Executing an informational campaign can go a long way in putting employees’ minds at ease. Company announcements, an internal webpage, newsletters and company-wide emails are all good elements to incorporate.

Dealing With Grief 

The COVID-19 pandemic can cause employees to feel several different types of grief: economic, loss of normalcy, loss of connection or isolation, anticipatory or fear of what’s to come, or actual grief from loss of a loved one.

Grief takes a heavy toll – not only on employees, but on the organization as a whole, as well. Employee grief results in:

  • An average annual cost of $75 billion in lost productivity, lost business, and poor performance (1)
  • An estimated 30 work days lost each year by each employee experiencing grief with no support from co-workers or managers (1)

Management can address grief by offering resources on how employees can take care of themselves. This is an excellent way to give them a sense of control during an uncertain time. A gentle reminder to employees to take advantage of their healthcare benefits is another solid strategy. This includes therapy as well as tending to their physical health. From a mental health standpoint, seeing a therapist – even virtually – can be tremendously beneficial during a difficult period. A therapist can give them tools to help them cope.

Additionally, peer support can be extremely powerful.  Look to community organizations, support groups, group grief counseling, etc.  Many of these organizations specialize in comforting, encouraging, mentoring, supporting, and providing coping skills to help people through grief.  Suffering, no matter where it starts, gets better when people understand that others are going through the same kinds of challenges, have the same fears, feel the same way and so forth.

Adjusting to Sudden Changes 

Working from home, homeschooling children, having less privacy and struggling to find a work/life balance are stressors that can affect employees during a pandemic. Why? They all require workers to not only adjust but to quickly adapt to sudden changes. Human nature tends to recoil from sudden change.

While some people love working from home, the situation is not ideal for everyone, especially when it involves the entire company. Figuring out new technology can be challenging and places additional support on IT employees. It can also pose challenges when not everyone has the ideal workspace or knowledge of how to work virtually.

With people working from home and schools closed, parents have been forced take on the role of home school teacher in addition to holding down a job. This is exhausting in and of itself. Add to the equation less privacy and blurring of lines between work and personal life, and it creates a recipe for a mental meltdown.

Leadership can help diffuse the situation in several ways. First, they can share tips about how to adjust to remote work and make these tips readily available in a central place that houses internal COVID-19 resources.

Managers should be given practices on how to interact with remote employees. Many employees will look to them for guidance and the more prepared their manager is, the better these employees will feel.

Keeping company culture strong is also imperative, because a positive company culture creates engagement and happy, motivated, productive employees. Holding virtual company events is an excellent way to make employees feel connected and strengthen company culture. Letting employees’ voices be heard via virtual feedback sessions is another.

Connecting Virtual with Real-World Experiences

While virtual meetings will never fully replace types of interactive experiences that only in-person meetings allow, they do provide opportunities for workers to engage and socialize.  Consider ways to connect the virtual world with in-person connections and experiences.  For example, a virtual happy hour.  While it’s not quite the same as enjoying time with colleagues at the neighborhood hot spot, it can be!  Order deliveries of appetizers, set a time (and virtual meet up spot), get everyone to join in and socialize.

Don’t be afraid to create mixer and networking events on a smaller scale.  This can be exciting times for smaller groups to get to know each other a bit more casually and look forward to meeting each other at an in-person event.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by stress during a pandemic. While the circumstances are ripe for anxiety, by leveraging these strategies, companies can greatly decrease the level of stress their employees.  When employees feel leaders and employers care, businesses benefit too.

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