Looking after Employee Wellbeing during a Pandemic

April 20, 2020 - Sophie Thompson

Countries all over the world have been in lockdown due to Coronavirus for the last few weeks and we have all started to adapt to the 'new normal'. However, such a quick and stark contrast in both work life and personal life compared to a couple of months ago can really take its toll on your employees and they may be starting to show signs of anxiety, loneliness, or burnout to name a few.

Some may have loved ones with the virus or know people who have sadly passed away, be worried about elderly or vulnerable relatives, or having to teach and care for their children alongside their daily work. This article looks at ways you can look after your employees and help them through the next few weeks and months, where effects of the lockdown may surface.

Frequent, transparent communication and avoid sweeping statements

It's important to be as open, clear and transparent with your employees as possible; they want to know they can trust you, and this trust will carry through for months to come. Let them know they're appreciated through actions as well as words - it's all very well issuing emails and statements about 'we're in it together', but if you cut bonuses across the organisation and not for those at senior levels, then you signal to your employees that you aren't, in fact, in it together. Lead from the top with compassion, empathy, and reliability, and your employees will feel more valued, have more trust in you and have more loyalty to you in the future.

This is a stressful time for both an organisation itself and employees but remember your people are the heart of your organisation. Avoid sweeping statements or rules as much as possible, such as 'all employees must take 60% of annual leave within 3 months', for example.

Everyone is adjusting to a new way of living and working, and many will likely feel on edge and possibly overwhelmed, without a blanket rule for everyone (this is especially true for larger enterprises). Be as flexible as possible around annual leave and benefits, unless absolutely necessary to make any changes.

Encourage time off during lockdown - many already had planned annual leave and have had travel plans cancelled so they will likely feel disappointed. Remind them that intermittent breaks from work are as important as ever, if not more so, as our minds adjust to a new normal.

Offer in-house and external resources to support wellbeing

Ensure employees are aware of Employee Assistance Programs or any in-house resources available to support their mental health, and be vocal about the process of accessing them. Make time for genuine check-in talks with team members, fostering an environment where it's ok for them to say 'I'm feeling anxious'.

HR professionals can role play this by saying 'a few people are feeling anxious about X at the moment', which encourages others to open up about any feelings of anxiety they may have too.

Consider external support for your employees, such as offering meditation, yoga or mindfulness classes for them over Zoom, WebEx, or similar. These can be recorded and saved so that employees can watch them back when it suits them best. You can direct them to training courses targeted at managing workplace stress or mindfulness, as well as apps to help their mental wellbeing such as Headspace or Calm.

Headspace app

The Headspace app shown above.

Ensure they are also aware of local mental health resources and telephone services they can use if they are struggling, including therapists, psychiatrists, suitcide hotlines, domestic violence support, and others (some of these in the UK are listed at the bottom of this article).

Bear in mind that this is a particularly stressful time for HR and people operations, who are creating new policies, facilitating remote working and dealing with an increased workload as a result of Covid-19. If you're an HR professional, don't forget to utilise these services for yourself. Think of it like on an aeroplane: you must put on your own mask before helping others.

Encourage structure, routine and self-care during the working day

It's difficult to spot the signs of burnout in a busy office environment, but it's even more difficult when employees aren't in the office. Lookout for signs through what's not being said, such as energy levels and times emails are being sent.

It's more difficult to separate work and home life when both are now in the same place, so some people may not be making that separation, which is unhealthy for them in the long run. Encourage separation from work, such as if they can work in a different room to the one they sleep in, for example, or stopping work at the same time they would usually in the office.

Establishing a routine whilst working from home can help avoid burnout, maintain energy levels and reduce anxiety. Arranging virtual coffees or lunches to provide social interaction at set times in the workday can also be helpful, especially with feelings of loneliness that come with isolation. These can also support a strong team, who may be used to working next to each other every day, and so now need other ways of building relationships with each other.

You could also encourage walking meetings or check-in phone calls on a daily walk (in the UK, people are allowed to leave the house once a day for exercise, although not all countries allow this). Other ideas for flexibility in routine include: encouraging self care during the work day, taking power naps, playing with children during a break.

Understanding that people are different and have different needs, which may make them more or less prone to stress and anxiety during the pandemic, is paramount when establishing policies to help their wellbeing. Some people will work a lot more at home, some will focus better without interruptions at their desk, and others will struggle to concentrate at home at all.

One group who may struggle to concentrate are those who have children they now need to homeschool. This will no doubt increase the stress and pressure on these employees, so it's essential to provide a level of flexibility in their working hours so that they can accommodate their new daily roles as well. In turn, this will mean they are more focused on their work during the hours they are working.

Support physical health with weekly recipes and financial aid for home-office setup

Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins, the body's feel-good hormones, which contributes to overall wellbeing. Focusing on exercise can take peoples' minds off negative thoughts or stressful tasks, as well as relieving stress, improving memory, and helping to sleep better at night. This doesn't have to be a high intensity workout either, even gentle exercise such as a walk or yoga can have the same positive effects.

Walking in a park

Encouraging employees to take time out of their day to focus on their physical health can greatly support their mental health, energy levels and concentration while working. For example, if they go for a walk outside during their lunch break, they'll get some fresh air and Vitamin D and feel more energised for the afternoon ahead.

Drinking water and eating healthy foods where possible also supports mental wellbeing and it's especially important to eat a balanced diet now, when other factors that would usually increase our mood such as social activities are prohibited. You could, for example, distribute a weekly recipe at work for people to try and make that week, maybe even running a competition for the most aesthetically pleasing version of the dish!

Make sure to include ingredients that are affordable and accessible. For example, flour isn't as widely available as it used to be, and I even saw a company doing this exercise and the recipe of the week included lobster - pretty insensitive at a time where there is much economic uncertainty.

Finally, physical health isn't just food and exercise - it also includes their office set-up at home. Where possible, financial support should be prioritised to help employees set up comfortable at home, whether that's a wifi booster, desk chair, or printer. This is a small investment in your staff, who if they haven't got proper back support in their chair for example will not only be able to concentrate less now, but may experience back problems in the future.

Don't forget your furloughed staff

You may have furloughed some of your staff but that doesn't mean you should forget about them. They legally can't do any work for the company but you can still provide support to them, such as directing them to the phone numbers for support services below, encouraging them to structure their day with exercise or other activities, and linking them to online yoga classes.

Useful telephone numbers (UK)

The following phone numbers are incredibly useful support services for people who want to talk and are struggling at the moment. They are not to be used in case of emergency - always call 999 or 111 depending on the severity of the situation.

  • Samaritans: 116 123 (free from any phone, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year)
  • Papyrus HOPELINEUK: 0800 068 4141 (if you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings or are concerned about a young person who might be, open weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm, bank holidays 2pm-10pm)
  • C.A.L.M.: 0800 58 58 58 (for those who identify as male, available everyday 5pm-midnight)
  • Switchboard: 0300 330 0630 (if you identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, available 10am-10pm everyday)
  • Women’s Aid Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247
  • Domestic Violence Assist: 0800 195 8699

Further support lines can be looked up and accessed through the Helplines partnership here.