Worried sick: How employers can support staff with coronavirus anxiety

As a global society, we are facing an unprecedented time of change and uncertainty. As more cases of the coronavirus continue to be announced, we can expect to see employees experiencing anxiety around the potential impact of the virus. The fear of becoming ill – and the social and economic impact that comes with it – can take its toll on employee health.

A small amount of stress is good for us. It triggers a ‘fight-or-flight’ survival response that helps us act quickly under pressure. In this case, it means we’re more likely to act on health and hygiene warnings. But, chronic stress – staying in this heightened state of stress for too long – can have a negative impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, and potentially lead to anxiety.

Anxiety can be just as contagious as a virus. We are social animals and it’s important for us to pick up on how others are feeling. From a survival point of view, if one member of our group notices danger, the rest will sense it too, which helps everyone stay vigilant and safe. But the coronavirus outbreak has sparked excessive panic and scaremongering, which has become a problem in itself.

So, what steps can employers take to help relieve symptoms of coronavirus anxiety?

The first line of defence

The lack of any precedent for dealing with a global pandemic means there can be uncertainty, and anxiety often stems from the unknown. Anxious employees may repeatedly ask themselves ‘what if?’ and focus on problems before they’ve happened. There may not be clear answers and advice is constantly changing as the situation evolves.

However, sharing actionable steps on how employees can protect themselves will help rationalise the issue. Make sure company health protocols are clear and accessible. This means keeping staff informed on the steps you’re taking as a company, as well as giving advice.

Share the latest updates and health guidelines on the virus to keep employees in the loop, however, be careful about how often you’re sharing information. Key daily updates are fine, but employees shouldn’t be overwhelmed with news updates, multiple times a day.

Remote control

Employees may be worried that they’ll encounter the virus 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 there are known cases 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 in setting up a suitable home working environment, for example, 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 for the wellbeing and resilience of staff who are self-isolating to maintain a sense of connection to their colleagues.

Remote workers can face psychological hazards linked to loneliness and isolation. Risk assess for these and consider increased connectivity through virtual water coolers, for example, so teams can keep in touch.

Use reassuring language

Be aware of how your language can impact people’s perceptions of the situation. According to The Journal of Positive Psychology, diagnostic terms should be avoided when it comes to discussing health concerns.

For example, using a term like ‘victims’ reinforces negative connotations and can make employees feel more stressed. Stick to the facts and avoid inflammatory language. Use phrases like ‘staff being treated for…’ instead, which have a more positive focus on recovery.

Additional support

Many employees may experience symptoms of anxiety as the virus reaches its peak. In addition to being transparent about company policies, it’s important 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.

Last updated Monday 23 March 2020