Most countries around the world are living in a heightened state of quarantine/social distancing due to the novel coronavirus, referred to as COVID-19. As a result, employees may be experiencing an escalating level of anxiety, fueled both by disruptions in normal routines and activities that serve as coping mechanisms, along with misinformation and phobias related to the virus. For those individuals suffering from existing mental health conditions, anxiety surrounding COVID-19 has the potential to exacerbate them. For this reason, it’s no surprise that mental health support organizations have experienced increased calls and emails.1
As the situation and landscape continues to evolve, it is crucial that companies support their employees who may be experiencing heightened levels of stress, coupled with potential disruptions to their usual access to mental health care services. Learn more about what you can do to support your workforce’s mental and emotional well-being as we continue to grapple with the global pandemic.
Be mindful regarding tone when communicating about COVID-19 in the workplace:
It is important to address employee concerns early and often, without causing panic. Companies need to demystify the situation for employees, put everyone’s mind at ease and provide hope for the future. Studies have shown that leaders have a particularly important role to play in reducing employee anxiety. Therefore, internal communications teams are instrumental in defining the communication strategy and leading this effort. Local HR resources are key partners, ensuring that messages address regional business and employee concerns specific to the pace of events in each geography.
Be careful to avoid stigmatizing language. For example, some employers noted that they are making sure that the illness is not called the “Wuhan coronavirus” in their communications.
Below are other key recommendations for framing your communications with employees:
- Post information regularly in a highly visible location. This can either be in a physical location or virtual (e.g., email, company intranet, or a Slack/Facebook channel).
- Direct employees to reputable resources for ongoing information on the pandemic.
- Describe how and why decisions were made about issues such as travel, working from home, etc.
- Provide timely, but accurate, information rather than waiting until you know all the answers.2
Supporting Employees Transitioning to Telework
As more employees begin working from home on a regular basis, companies should encourage healthy telework habits to counterbalance feelings of loneliness. Uncertainty over disease status, separation from loved ones and boredom can lead to substantial feelings of anger following the imposition of a quarantine.
Here are top tips to share with your employees:
- Take advantage of opportunities to integrate video into conversations with colleagues, clients, friends and family to combat the effects of social isolation.
- Create separate work and home spaces; although not feasible for everyone, being in a home office or creating a separate space that is only used for work can be a physical reminder of work/life boundaries.
- Establish a daily habit to indicate that the workday has begun and ended (e.g., changing outfits, shutting down the computer, stepping outside).
- Take breaks to relax, recharge and meditate (e.g., listen to a muscle relaxation podcast).
- Limit news/social media intake to mitigate stress/anxiety related to COVID-19. Being concerned about the news is understandable, but for many people, tuning in can make existing mental health problems worse due to the prevalence of misinformation on, and oversaturation of, social media platforms. Consider picking a specific time to check in with the news while making sure to only refer to reputable sources for virus-related information.
- If possible, spend part of the day outdoors or in an area of your residence that gets natural light.
Transitioning to telework might impact other aspects of employees’ daily routines. Here are additional resources that should be shared with employees:
- Employees’ normal exercise regimens may be disrupted by shifting to telework. Discuss potential initiatives and/or programs promoting physical activity with existing digital lifestyle and condition management vendors.
- Extended school closures can be a challenge to employees’ stress, anxiety and productivity. Many educational resources, including online classes or other free/low-cost virtual options, can help balance family obligations with working at home.
- Employers can promote vendors they currently work with that offer mental and emotional well-being support regardless of their physical location. These options can include app-based solutions focused on sleep improvement, healthy eating, meditation, etc.
Ensuring Timely and Equitable Health Care Access
Never before has telehealth been so crucial to ensuring access to all health care services, but especially for mental health. The bricks-and-mortar infrastructure of “traditional” health care facilities should be reserved for those patients who must be seen in person for their conditions, whether they are related to COVID-19 or part of other essential care, to reduce the likelihood of the spread of the virus and decrease the load on the health care system. In contrast, many mental health services can be delivered virtually.
Consider the following steps to increase access to mental health services through telehealth:
- Communicate the availability of virtual care options to your employees, emphasizing the benefit of getting access to care without the risk of physical interaction that could expose them to COVID-19. For years, employers have looked to increase utilization of telehealth and tele-mental health services; the increased stress, anxiety, and need for social distancing provides an opportunity to message the availability of mental health services to help employees during this uncertain time. Make sure to coordinate with both HR and legal teams when exploring telehealth offerings, as current ERISA and tax guidance may make it difficult to extend anything beyond referral services to employees who are not already covered by a group health plan.
- Outside the United States, governments are rolling out 24-hour hotlines for mental health support.3 For example, China’s National Health Commission has reported that more than 300 hotlines have launched across the country to provide mental health advice related to coronavirus, with support from university psychology departments, counseling services and NGOs. Employers should ensure that employees located in areas most acutely affected by the novel coronavirus are aware of government resources and supports related to telehealth.
- Reduce or remove copays for telehealth, including tele-mental health. The cost of mental health services is one of the top reasons that people do not seek mental health care. Given the unique circumstances of social distancing, and in some jurisdictions, full quarantining, making virtual services for mental health as easy to access as possible is ideal. If costs are a concern, this could be a temporary change based on the global pandemic.
- Consider making tele-mental resources, like telehealth, third-party vendor programs (e.g., those that promote resilience, sleep, and other emotional well-being supports) and health industry partner programs available to all employees and dependents, regardless of whether they are on your benefit plan. Some employers have a relatively small percentage of their employees on their benefit plans, but all their employees are likely to be experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. Whether employees are still working in the office because they are vital to operations, working from home for the first time or forced to take time off, everyone is operating in new and potentially high-stress situations.
Communicate the Availability of EAP and Other Health Industry Partner Resources for Mental Health
Employee assistance programs (EAPs), health plan care management teams, directly contracted telehealth vendors, second-opinion services, physician selection tools, and other vendors that focus on emotional well-being should all be offering COVID-19 specific resources. Most, if not all of these resources, should have some connections to supporting the mental health of employees.
Employers should communicate the availability of these programs generally as they usually do, when the world isn’t impacted by a global pandemic. But in this environment of heightened stress, there is a unique opportunity to drive utilization and emphasize the importance of accessing virtual care given the need for social distancing.
Before reaching out to employees, check in with your vendors to clarify which mental health services they are providing to employees related specifically to COVID-19, and work with them to communicate their availability. Many of your vendor partners are eager to step up to provide resources; in fact, many vendors are providing COVID-19 specific webinars to educate people. Employers can help consolidate vendor communications so that employees can learn about the programs available to them. This is a good time to steer employees to well-being portals and concierge supports who can connect them to appropriate mental health and emotional well-being programs and educational resources.
Consider Offering Pandemic Leave to Assuage Fear and Anxiety About Going to Work and/or Caring for Family Members
To the extent that it is possible given your business continuity planning, consider providing additional leave to employees specifically related to this pandemic. Many employees may be scared to go to work or travel. They may be concerned that they must stay home and don’t have PTO or other leave options banked to cover their finances. Even employees with the ability to work from home are likely to be experiencing greater levels of fear, anxiety and stress as they learn to cope with social isolation and working while taking care of family members. These employees could benefit from flexible schedules that take into account the need to take time to take care of their emotional needs.
Bottom Line – Everyone is Stressed, and You Can Assuage Fears by Promoting Your Safety Net
Employers are one of the most trusted sources of information for their workforce. Therefore, one of the best things you can do is to reassure concerned employees that you have several resources available for them and that they can lean on the many vendors you work with to access support for their mental health.
Our overall recommendations include:
- Communicate the availability of mental health support resources regularly and in a way that is coordinated so that employees don’t feel any more overwhelmed than they already do.
- Be sensitive to the fact that there are many sources of stress that are impacting the mental health of your employees. Can they pay their bills? Are their kids at home while they’re expected to work at the same time? Are they afraid that they are or people they are caring for will contract COVID-19?
- Lean on all vendors, including those that aren’t traditionally thought of as “mental health,” to support your employees. Leave, sick pay and disability policies, financial and legal counselors, emergency loans, and other resources can address the many stressors that are heightened in the Age of Coronavirus.
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. If you’re reading this, you’re are likely an employee, too. While looking out for your colleagues, don’t forget to take a walk outside, do some yoga or whatever else brings you calm. This is a new situation for everyone, including you.
- Telework and Well-being Integration Guide
- Educational Resources List
- National Association of School Psychologists (NASP): Talking to Children About COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)
- 1 | https://www.ocduk.org/ocd-and-coronavirus/
- 2 | https://hbr.org/2020/03/communicating-through-the-coronavirus-crisis
- 3 | https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-mental/chinese-public-dial-in-for-support-as-coronavirus-takes-mental-toll-idUSKBN2070H2