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The Psychology of Employees in Crisis: Maintaining a Mentally Healthy Workforce

Some workers come prepared for crisis. Pilots, for example, are renowned for the ability to act calmly and confidently in the face of potential disasters.

But that takes extensive preparation: as writer and pilot Kim Green tells Fast Company, “It’s not that pilots are born preternaturally calm in the face of danger; it’s that we review emergency procedures so many times that they come to seem almost routine. Pilots don’t like surprises, but we learn to be ready for them.”

Unfortunately, ordinary workers rarely have the benefit of crisis training, and now – thanks to the historic COVID-19 pandemic – employees everywhere have been trapped in a moment of shared trauma without any preparation at all. Everyone is anxious, uncertain, and struggling to adapt to new work requirements (like working from home under shelter-in-place orders). Managing employees well in this crisis is critical not just to productivity but to employee well-being.

But how?

First, manage the shift to remote working like any other major institutional change. The unexpected, forced, and potentially undesired shift to remote work can itself cause or deepen the sense of crisis. Expecting employees to “get with the program” without offering adequate support and guidance will add to their stress and anxiety.

“Shifting an entire division or company to remote can trigger a shockwave of change,” says Darren Murph, head of remote at software development platform provider GitLab. “To help mitigate this, start by evaluating current managers and rally a team of experts who have remote work experience. These people should be able to communicate nuances and serve as resources to those who will inevitably have questions.”

Second, the organization will want to replicate the social interactivity of the workplace as much as possible.

That’s because, in normal times, employees use breaks, happy hours, and other social outlets to “decompress” and “de-stress.” But in a period of quarantine and social distancing, employees may find themselves without access to the mechanisms they use to cope with feelings of anxiety, anger, and loneliness. This can present an enormous mental challenge that can lead to feelings of depression and powerlessness.

This isn’t idle speculation, either; recent retirees who lose access to personal interactions and social outlets from work see their mental well-being measurably erode by as much as 9% in the six years following retirement.

Instead, enable employees to connect with each other via videoconference for social purposes in addition to work reasons; for example, you might even set up an always-on conference channel where employees can come and go on breaks to visit socially. In general, it’s a good idea to promote self-care and if your business offers any benefits related to mental health like covering (online) therapy sessions, now is the time to publicize them.

CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.  

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COVID-19 RESOURCES: Please visit our Coronavirus Resources landing page for a compilation of links and useful information for your business to utilize as you navigate the COVID-19 crisis.