How to Help Employees Cope with Coronavirus Fears

Mar 13, 2020

By The Lyra Team

As the number of cases of the novel coronavirus–a highly transmissible respiratory illness–continues to rise, employers worldwide are grappling with how best to protect their workforces. A growing number of companies are cancelling business travel and conferences as a precaution, and some are asking employees to work remotely to help prevent the spread of the virus. For human resources and benefits leaders, there is also the question of how best to support employees who may be feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed by news of the coronavirus. 

Read on for guidance from Lyra clinicians to help promote your workforce’s mental health and resilience in the face of this public health challenge.

Know that worrying is to be expected

Whether or not your employees are directly impacted by the coronavirus or live in an area that’s been affected, it is common and understandable to experience stress or worry over this news. Our reactions to public health events are individualized, and people may experience a wide range of emotions with varying amounts of intensity. 

“Stress related to news about the coronavirus can affect people across all aspects of their daily lives, including at work. When this stress includes frequent or intense worry, it can be distressing and very distracting, making it hard to concentrate on tasks or engage meaningfully at work,” said Joe Grasso, PhD, manager of clinical quality at Lyra Health. 

Encourage reasonable precautions

When communicating with employees about protecting against coronavirus, first refer them to the precautions outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home if you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and throw the tissue away.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

While employees should be encouraged to do what’s in their control to limit the spread of illness, it’s also necessary to recognize the limitations of what can be controlled in the situation. Someone could take every precaution conceivable and still get sick, or they could do nothing and be fine. As with most things, the most effective route is somewhere in the middle. Support employees in taking recommended precautions to the best of their ability, without becoming unhelpfully preoccupied by them.

Ground yourself in the facts

Seek out reliable information so you can be grounded in the facts before providing updates to your workforce. Credible resources include the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization. Staying informed of the facts can help your employees gain perspective on coronavirus news. For example, people may be surprised to learn that, despite the coronavirus being highly transmissible, it is far less deadly than SARS was. 

Another helpful consideration: Far more people are affected by the flu every year, and the same reasonable precautions apply. The current outbreak is a reminder to follow the same guidelines we’re typically told to follow during flu season that keep us protected year-round. 

Consider suggesting limited media consumption

While it’s important to stay informed, fixating on the news may worsen existing worries and trigger unproductive stress and anxiety. If employees find that their level of coronavirus-related news consumption is causing undue stress without adding any utility, you may suggest that they limit consumption of health-related news and social media. 

Promote awareness of common thinking traps

If employees are operating on good information and taking reasonable precautions, but still struggling with worry and fear, sharing educational materials about strategies for identifying and challenging unhelpful worries may be beneficial. For example, vividly imagining worst-case scenarios and treating them as if they’re inevitable can exacerbate anxiety symptoms but may not lead to productive action. Tips for noticing these types of thoughts and redirecting attention to more productive thoughts and actions can help.

When to direct employees to professional mental health support

If an employee finds that their thoughts, emotions, or behaviors are making it difficult to function in daily life, and their usual coping strategies aren’t working, encourage them to consider professional mental health support from your employee assistance program or health care provider. 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.