How to Help Employees Cope With Anxiety in Times of Crisis

We are halfway through 2020, and it feels like we’ve experienced a lifetime of stress. We’re simultaneously responding to a global pandemic, widespread stay-at-home orders, economic turmoil and civil unrest. It’s not surprising that anxiety levels have skyrocketed. In fact, since the beginning of the pandemic, 57% of people have experienced increased anxiety.

Your employees  barely have time to process one life-changing event before another occurs and may say they’re OK.  But, they’re probably struggling to understand and adapt to what’s happening around them. 

“Feeling anxious is a normal reaction to any stressful situation,” says Lisa Kruger, owner and psychotherapist at Stepping Stone Psychotherapy, LLC. “This is a good moment for companies to reassess how they’re supporting their workers’ mental health.”

Anxiety can be overwhelming and debilitating, but you can help your employees cope. Here’s how to support your employees’ mental well-being through this national crisis.

Adjust Workloads to Reflect Additional Stressors 

Many workplace stressors don’t originate at work, but they still affect your employees’ work lives.  “Because of COVID and Black Lives Matter, employees are walking around with a lot of anxiety,” says Steve Pemberton, CHRO of WorkHuman. “And they do bring that to work.” This is further complicated by the shift to remote work. Boundaries between work and home life have merged. The anxiety we experience at home is transferred to work.

Many employees are still uncertain about their jobs, their health and their security. “What employees are experiencing now is a tremendous loss of safety,” says Ruth Ruskin, a psychotherapist at the Roundhouse Square Counseling Center

Anxiety is hard to gauge in remote workers, but often manifests in performance. “You may see someone not completing work or having difficulty concentrating,” Ruskin says. Finding ways to reduce or reallocate an employee’s workload in the short-term can go a long way toward helping them feel supported during this crisis and reducing their anxiety. It can also help prevent long-term problems such as burnout. 

If it’s not possible to reallocate workloads, help employees prioritize their tasks. Break big projects down into smaller, more manageable pieces. This gives them a better sense of control over what they can accomplish, which mitigates anxiety escalation.

Provide Appropriate Mental and Emotional Support

Employer-provided resources, such as employee assistance programs, can help people cope with anxiety. “There is a lot of stress and strain on a lot of people,” Pemberton says. “People have lost income. They’ve lost loved ones.” Broadening your employer assistance plan to include telehealth mental health services (if it does not already) can provide an important lifeline for employees in these difficult times and during future crises.

However, since mental health disorders are still stigmatized, such programs are frequently underutilized. Let workers know that EAP’s that provide access to licensed counselors are subject to HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification rules, which can help assuage concerns about privacy and mental health stigmas. 

It’s important for people to know that they aren’t alone in their feelings of anxiety, though. Encourage direct managers to check-in with their team members and to be transparent about their own experiences with stress and anxiety. “Connecting with others is vital,” Kruger says. “Connection is the antithesis of depression and anxiety.” Let workers know that it’s safe for them to acknowledge if they’re feeling anxious. Intentional check-ins are especially important for remote workers, whose anxiety could be exacerbated by isolation. 

While reaching out to workers is important, managers should also respect employees’ right not to disclose their mental health status. Keeping a dialogue open with workers while maintaining appropriate boundaries is key. 

Empower Employees Through Open Communication

It’s important to recognize that we can’t always provide solutions for the problems around us — and that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable with that. “Historically when people are faced with an uncomfortable topic, they try to fix things,” Kruger says. “But that’s really more of an indicator of how we’re uncomfortable with our own discomfort.” We don’t know how long the pandemic or civil unrest will continue, and that’s okay. The key is to help employees take control where they can. 

For example, to help employees of color, make sure their voices are being heard in the workplace. “One of the things people are looking for is communication,” Pemberton says. “The more African Americans are telling their stories of what their lives are currently like, the more people can listen and become aware.”

Giving your employees a voice helps them feel more in control and empowered. Ask what changes they would like to see in the workplace to feel more included and heard. “There are opportunities in anxious moments,” Ruskin points out. No matter what the source of anxiety is, ask your employees “What can I do to support you?” — and really listen to what they have to say.