As countries worldwide are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, many industries and businesses are finding themselves facing a similar struggle: How do we manage the unthinkable?

That’s the situation many Human Resources (HR) leaders find themselves in right now. It is a tumultuous time and employees may understandably be dealing with mental health issues on top of their workload. It is emphatically not business as usual, even in companies not having to cope with layoffs or wage reductions, and HR managers may find themselves thrust into the role of Chief Morale Officer. “Employees are scared, distracted and feeling disconnected from both their co-workers and family members,” says Lianne Picot, an Ontario-based leadership consultant. “They are worried for their health, their finances and their families.”

Keeping up morale is critical for HR leaders now – both for their employees’ well-being and for their own company’s health. According to Picot, founder of the Blue Morpho consulting firm, one of the surest outcomes of decreased morale is decreased productivity. She offers some guidelines on how to navigate the rocky road ahead.


How to Help When Employees Show Signs of Stress and Anxiety

If your organization has an employee strategy or structure that can provide mental health support, that’s great. Unfortunately, those resources may be under strain right now. In the absence of those support systems, and depending on the urgency of the situation, start by telling a struggling employee to take a break, or take the rest of the day off. Standing down on expectations just a bit is sometimes enough to do the trick. 

Empathy is critical here. Recognize that a pandemic can stir up many negative feelings and concerns. Show your concern. State it. Understand that you can’t have the same expectations of staff as during normal times and communicate that. 

Take the time to establish with employees which tasks need to be prioritized and eliminate non-essential work. Having a reasonable number of tasks can give employees something to focus on and can be beneficial, but let them control the number of tasks so they don’t feel overwhelmed. 

Help people stay on track without micromanaging; trust that they will get the work done. If they don’t, deal with them on an individual basis, not by introducing sweeping measures to micromanage everyone’s work. 

Offer support resources. For organizations with access to Dialogue’s telemedicine services, our mental health program offers a comprehensive, personalized, evidence-based solution to keep your workforce mentally recharged. Members can access a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals from the comfort of their home. Dialogue has also created a guide to coping with stress and anxiety during COVID-19 that can be shared. 



Tips to Support the Mental Health of a Remote Workforce

  • Have a plan and communicate it with clarity.
    Employees need to know what happens if they, or a loved one, get sick. Provide regular updates and recognize that worry and fear arise in the absence of clear communications.


  • Structure is important.
    The challenge at home is that the work is always there and some employees may be working from home for the first time and don’t know how to navigate their new reality. Remind them to take breaks and take walks. Don’t set up elaborate systems for “checking in” - it doesn’t help morale if people feel they are being watched. 


  • Set up a buddy system to boost morale.
    People are disconnected right now; they need to establish new connections to get them through the crisis. Pair off employees so they can check in with each other to see how they are doing.


  • Recognize, accept and communicate that productivity may suffer as it’s not business as usual. Encourage employees to practice self-care.

  • Be intentional about appreciation.
    Show and express appreciation for your employees and the work they’re doing. This is really critical for mental health. Find the things that people are doing which are contributing to the work that needs to get done and tell them they made a difference. 


  • Determine how employees feel and identify their needs.
    Rather than simply asking “how are you”, try asking specific questions such as:
    • "What has been the biggest adjustment you've personally had to make in the past few weeks?"
    • "What struggles are you having with going remote and what are you lacking to do your job as effectively as you'd like?"
    • "What could we (as an organization) do to make the biggest impact on your day-to-day life right now?"
    • "How are you balancing your kids being at home with all your work duties?"
    • "As you look around at what has unfolded in the last two weeks, what's the biggest concern you have right now?"
    • "What's keeping you up at night?"

How to Support Remaining Employees After Layoffs

If you have figured out that there aren’t going to be more layoffs, or at least not in the immediate future, communicate that clearly. But don’t give false hope; people need transparency. If you can’t be clear about the future, communicate that. People generally know when their jobs are at risk. 

For those still working, emphasis should be put on taking things day-by-day; let’s get this done today and focus on those results. Set people up for success with short-term goals. Acknowledge that it is stressful not knowing what the future will bring but focus on what can be done TODAY. 

Don’t forget to share success stories from within the organization and the impact of the work that is being done. Setting up an effective internal communications methodology is important, no matter how small or big the organization.



How to Support Employees Who Are Essential Workers

Taking their health seriously is critical here. 

  • Make sure that protocols based on science are in place and have been communicated clearly;
  • Ensure the employees understand their health is extremely important and that there are rigorous systems in place to contain the spread of the virus;
  • Acknowledge the sacrifice they are making and the disconnect they have from the people in their lives;
  • Listen to their concerns and try to address them quickly and effectively;
  • Let them know you are listening and want their feedback and will do whatever is possible to ease their burden. 

Resources:

Share with your employees any resources you have. Here are a few ideas:

  • Dialogue’s guide to coping with anxiety and stress during COVID-19
  • The Conference Board of Canada has all kinds of information on its website (conferenceboard.ca), including videos dealing with mental health. 
  • The Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca) also offers many online tools for a variety of mental health issues, and also deals specifically with workplace issue. 
  •  The government of Canada has updates and information about many different aspects related to COVID-19 (Canada.ca), as does every provincial government. 
  • Anxiety Canada offers tools and resources to help people manage anxiety (anxietycanada.com)
  • For those companies using Dialogue (dialogue.co), the virtual health care company offers a variety of services related to mental health and well-being which can be easily accessed by employees who find themselves struggling at this time.


For HR leaders struggling with their own mental health issues, check out your professional association website. Connect with friends or colleagues you know also working in HR. Prioritize your own support systems for what is a very tough role right now as well as staying connected to people in similar jobs. Make sure there is a separation between the work week and the weekend. If you have access to Dialogue, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of healthcare professionals for support.


“The bottom line is that the more organizations can do to support their people through this crisis, the more those employees will feel attached to and engaged in their organizations moving forward,” says Picot. This is a moment for human leadership. Help employees continue to work effectively by showing you care and ensure communications with employees reflect the kindness and compassion they need right now. In these trying times, remind yourself that policies are important – but your people are critical. 


 

What if I have additional questions about COVID-19?

For additional questions, you can consult any of the other resources Dialogue has developed.

Access COVID-19 Resources