The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented time of change and uncertainty. This is especially the case for small business owners, who are now struggling to keep afloat and are searching for ways to support their staff with remote working.
What's more, with the number of coronavirus cases increasing, we can expect to see employees experiencing high levels of anxiety around the potential impact of the virus on their personal lives if they need to self-isolate or have loved ones who fall ill.
It's no surprise that the fear of becoming ill – and the social and economic impact that comes with it – can take its toll on employee health. But, as an employer, there are steps that you can take to support your staff and lessen the burden they are bearing. Brendan Street, Nuffield Health's Head of Emotional Wellbeing, shares his expert knowledge on how you can support your staff during this time.
The first line of defence
Anxiety often stems from the unknown. Anxious employees repeatedly ask themselves ‘what if?’ and focus on problems before they’ve happened. The lack of any precedent for dealing with a global pandemic means often there are no answers – only uncertainty.
Some of the 'what if's and anxiety-fuelled questions that your employees may be worrying about include:
- ‘Should I go into work or self-isolate?'
- 'Is my cough a symptom and should I get tested?'
- 'Should I visit my elderly relatives?'
- 'Is it safe to use public transport?'
- 'Should I cancel seeing my friends this evening?'
Sharing actionable steps on how to protect themselves and what to do if they feel unwell will help rationalize such issues and arm your employees with the tools they need to make decisions. Make sure that company health protocols are clear and accessible. This means keeping staff informed on the steps you’re taking as a company and giving advice on how to stay hygienic and what to do if you’re feeling unwell.
Share the latest updates, advice and health guidelines on the virus to keep employees in the loop. However, be careful about how often you’re sharing information. Key updates once or twice a day are fine, but employees shouldn’t be overwhelmed with distressing news updates multiple times a day.
Much of the panic around the coronavirus stems from employees worrying about where they may encounter it, like on their commute or even in the office.
Where possible, make reasonable adjustments. These may include accommodating remote working and putting unnecessary travel on hold, particularly if cases become known in your area. This will become essential if known cases are announced in your company.
Successful remote working requires planning to avoid further distress. You may need to support employees by putting together remote working policies, or setting up a suitable home working environment, such as providing a company laptop to relieve financial worries and ergonomic furniture to allow them to work comfortably from home.
Out of sight not out of mind
It's important to ensure members of staff who are self-isolating still feel connected to the team. Studies have shown that remote workers face psychological hazards linked to loneliness and isolation, so it's vital to take appropriate steps to ensure your staff are protected. Risk assess for these and consider increased connectivity through the use of video conferencing, so teams can stay connected.
Use reassuring language
Be aware of how your language can impact people’s perceptions of the situation. In general, diagnostic terms should be avoided when it comes to discussing health concerns.
For example, using terms like ‘cases’ and ‘victims’ reinforces negative connotations and can make employees even more stressed. Stick to the facts and avoid inflammatory language. Use phrases like ‘staff being treated for…’ instead, which has a more positive focus on recovery.
Many employees are going to experience symptoms of distress and anxiety as the virus reaches its peak. In addition to being transparent about company policies, it’s important to foster an environment where employees feel they can talk to you about their mental health. It's also vital to provide employees with coping mechanisms.
Staff who continue to show signs of distress should be guided towards further emotional support. It may be that anxiety around coronavirus is a noticeable sign of pre-existing or wider emotional struggles.
In these cases, highlight existing workplace offerings like employee assistance programmes (EAPs) which offer direct, confidential contact with counsellors and mental health experts.
Consider inviting an expert to give a company talk on general coping mechanisms for anxiety. This may help those who are worried about speaking to managers or employers about their fears.
The outbreak of coronavirus has created a rapidly-changing trading environment, and we understand how difficult it can be to keep on top of the latest news and business advice. To help you, we've put together a hub of information and resources to help support your business at this time, but please also continue to keep up to date with Gov.UK, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
About the Author
Brendan is the Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. He has over 25 years of experience treating mental health problems in the NHS and private sector. Brendan is a BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Supervisor, fully qualified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) practitioner, and NMC registered Mental Health Nurse.