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How leaders can protect employee wellbeing during COVID-19

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No one is immune from the multiple stressors being caused by the current crisis. What can leaders do to improve wellbeing stamina?

Around the world, employers are increasingly worried about the wellbeing issues presented by the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. Above all, the crisis brings potentially lethal physical health consequences for our workforces. But its mental health implications – stress, fear and uncertainty – can be equally devastating. As leaders, our job is to improve the wellbeing stamina of our workforce as we navigate a course through this extraordinary global challenge.

Depending on their sector, the current crisis has hit organizations very differently. But the single common factor for everyone is that life is infinitely more stressful.

Essential frontline workers are running harder and faster against the backdrop of an invisible and potentially deadly risk. Beyond keeping people physically protected, employers must also manage staff exhaustion and the stress that comes from the pressure to perform during a crisis. Many will have feelings of guilt if work prevents them from being able to care for own family – others will be suffering as they choose to self-isolate from loved ones for fear of transmission.

Meanwhile, those now working remotely face the mental stress of isolation and the physical challenges of new workspaces – kitchen tables, bedrooms and garages – that are far from fit for purpose. Staff may also be juggling business commitments with increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – and worries about older, immunocompromised or absent friends and family members.

For both groups, supporting wellbeing effectively requires a holistic approach that addresses mental health and engagement with the psychosocial considerations in this new working environment.

Where should leaders be focusing in the coming weeks and months?

Protect both mental and physical health

Beyond all your physical protection measures, make sure employees know where to find information, guidance and support for mental health. Maintain open channels of communication to hear how employees are feeling and, importantly, listen and respond. Consider establishing a hotline or central contact point for employees – and develop in-house channels and hubs to respond promptly to employee questions and concerns.

However, don’t rely on people to self-report. Two-way conversations are essential to building trust. It’s vital to monitor mental wellbeing with structured regular opportunities for employees to ‘check-in’ with managers and colleagues – and encourage peer support. Share techniques to stay calm, present and focused. Reinforce the importance of being physically active to reduce stress and mindfulness for mental clarity.

Make everyone aware that significant changes in a team member's personality or work product may be signs that a person is struggling. If possible, leverage analytics to identify vulnerable ‘hot spots’. Put mechanisms in place to ensure at-risk employees are reached out to immediately with empathy and concern – not just with practical solutions.

Keep your staff connected and feeling supported in isolation

Research in Hong Kong after the 2003 SARS outbreak found that increased social connectedness offset the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic. For many people, connection with colleagues can provide an important buffer to their feelings of social isolation and disconnection. Encourage employees to stay regularly connected with virtual video meetings.

With employees feeling overwhelmed and anxious, ask people leaders to make themselves available to staff to talk about their fears, answer questions and reassure them about work and personal issues.

When people are working remotely, it’s more important than ever to routinely check in, not only about work, but also to see how people are doing. Ask direct questions: “How are you managing? What would you most like support with at the moment?”

Boost motivation and engagement

It’s hard to find the energy to remain motivated in a time of crisis. Setting a clear and short roadmap for your organization’s objectives will mobilize and galvanize your employees around a common goal. This is also a good time to rearticulate your values, which help keep people grounded in the familiar and give them a roadmap for navigating uncertainty.

As you clarify plans to lead through this period of change, align your approach for managing COVID-19 with your broader purpose. Embed your organizational purpose and values into all communications as you share your roadmap across the organization. Provide recognition and ‘shout outs’ for those who are living the values during this time.
Keep communicating, even when you don’t know the answer. If you say nothing people fill the gaps with conjecture and worry.

Foster resilience and performance

The sudden shift to working from home has the potential to de-rail performance. Make sure employees have sufficient infrastructure, flexibility and support to do their job to the best of their ability under the current circumstances.

In these extraordinary times, we need acknowledge different work patterns, particularly around remote working and virtual teaming. Empower your middle management – a highly influential cohort – to drive new ways of working.

Consider opportunities to upskill employees and cross skill teams. Provide access to tools and online learning platforms to empower employees, increase organizational capability, workforce flexibility and resilience. Employee engagement will be improved where they can form part of organizational solution.

Future-proof your workforce

Importantly, no matter what disruptive forces and how stressful the scenario, humans are at the center of every organization. In the toughest times, the human spirit dictates that leaders will emerge, often from the most unexpected places. To nurture these fledgling leaders in our organizations, our support should be empowering and self-sustaining. We must encourage individual employees to take ownership and accountability for their own wellbeing – so they come through the crisis more resilient than when they went in.


As the pandemic continues to unfold, leaders must keep focused on ensuring our employees are not just physically safe, but psychologically and socially supported, so they emerge from the crisis ready to embrace the opportunities on the other side.

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