Healthy Lifestyle

Time to Lead: How to Help Employees Manage Stress and Anxiety Over COVID-19

Published: July 6, 2020

Many employers have canceled professional conferences and directed employees to work from home when possible while others are requiring employees to return to work. Some have formed task forces, dusted off emergency response plans and ordered increasingly stringent safety measures. 

It's all left many employees worried, stressed and anxious. Beyond the health risks they face in day-to-day life, there are heightened concerns about job security and the value of retirement portfolios as the stock market fluctuates.

Stressed employees are at risk for increased levels of:

  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Fatigue

High levels of stress are detrimental to a person’s health and have a well-documented drag on productivity. Stress also has a negative effect on teamwork, customer service and product quality.


Strategies for Leaders

So what can business leaders do to help mitigate employee stress and anxiety during this difficult time? None of us has the perfect playbook, but here are some strategies: 

Keep your door open (even virtually): Increase management’s visibility and continuously gather feedback from employees. Keep connected with employees whether they’re in the office or working remotely. Make sure they have plenty of opportunities to tell you what they’re thinking and feeling. Listen to their suggestions and help them feel safe. Share as much information as possible about the rationale for all management actions in response to COVID-19. 

Lean on your experience: Apply the skills you’ve learned in other change-management situations. Change, no matter how seemingly small, makes many people anxious. Changes to schedules, alternative work arrangements, new safety measures, etc., even when justified, are still changes. Be sure to provide encouragement and acknowledge everyone’s strong efforts throughout the entire process as your business adapts. Positive reinforcement works, and it doesn’t cost a dime. 

Keep an open mind: Be prepared for varied employee responses and how you’ll respond. One size does not fit all when it comes to how people experience stress and anxiety, or how an employer should respond. Some employees will be less concerned about the COVID-19 threat and their employer’s strategic responses to it while others may seem to border on panic. Have patience, grace and a measured response. If necessary, don’t hesitate to use counseling resources you may have available, such as an employee assistance program

Communicate the facts: Send updated information to employees regarding public health announcements and recommendations for risk reduction. Have one person in your organization collect and disseminate the most accurate, current and useful information about COVID-19 so employees don’t have to do it themselves. This may also help prevent employees from falling down the rabbit hole of internet misinformation and rumors.  

Be the leader you’d want to have: Practice self-control and stay calm. Without self-control, it’s easy for a leader to get caught in the grip of panic and be at the mercy of their feelings. Stress and panic can create a myriad of reactions. Do you blow up? Do you cause more panic and angst? Are you indecisive? Do you have a tendency to shut down and hide in your office? A leader who exhibits strong self-control in the midst of crisis is much more capable of making rational decisions, communicating clearly and working to effectively solve problems.


The STOP Method

Beyond big-picture strategies, it’s helpful to have a plan for managing stress and anxiety in the moment. The following approach can help you and your employees deal with those difficult feelings we all face.

S: Stop
T: Take a breath
O: Observe
P: Proceed

These steps can help you identify the stress and your feelings, and how your body and mind are responding. Then you can choose a calm and helpful response – and avoid automatic reactions that can be negative for yourself and those around you.  

Traits of a Leader

Unfortunately, it looks like the current situation may be more of a marathon than a sprint. Crises like these require that leaders demonstrate confidence when they may feel the most vulnerable and maintain vision for others when their own line of sight is obscure.  

The quality of leadership you demonstrate during difficult times will leave a powerful mark on employees. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn and demonstrate your commitment to the welfare of your employees and clients. You’ll see it come back to you many fold in the future. 

More Resources

About the Author

Jean Faber, MA, is the corporate director for Best Care EAP and has over 30 years of experience in the areas of employee assistance, training and consulting. She has been with Best Care EAP since 1989 and oversees all aspects of Best Care EAP and associated programs. 

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