HR Insights 8 min

Managing Workplace Stress During COVID-19

April 10, 2020

Life certainly took an alarming turn in March. First came toilet paper-hoarding, then toilet paper-hoarding memes, and then real worries about food and medical mask shortages, followed by lockdowns worldwide and stay-at-home orders for 95 percent of Americans. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses closed their doors, leading to a dramatic increase in the national unemployment rate—”the largest over-the-month increase in the rate since January 1975,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

For businesses still operating, there’s plenty of workplace stress due to COVID-19, from adapting to new working arrangements, having the kids home, employees getting sick, and much more. Because many employees are experiencing stressors unlike any they’ve had to face before, they’ll need their human resources representatives to help them through both the obvious and less obvious challenges.

The world feels crazy right now, but here are a few ways HR can help employees manage workplace stress during COVID-19.

How to Help Employees Deal with COVID-19 Stress

What can organizations do to help reduce employee stress due to COVID-19?

Everyone is feeling the strain of having to adjust to this new, uncertain reality in a way that goes beyond job stress. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, grief expert David Kessler explained that “we’re feeling a number of different griefs….The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Kessler goes on to name another type of grief, anticipatory grief, which focuses on the uncertainty of the future and shatters our sense of safety. So even if nobody in your organization is sick and you haven’t let any employees go, your employees probably worry about that possibility. Or maybe they’re a manager, and they’re worrying about having to be the bearer of bad news if the time comes, or of being fired themselves. There’s also the very real and tragic grief of losing a loved one to this virus.

What HR Can Do

The number one thing you can do to help your employees manage stress during COVID-19 is communicate. Communicate so they know what their options are and that they do have options. Making sure your employees know who to contact when they have questions about benefits, time-off policies, working from home, or other assistance programs you offer will be key in reducing overall workplace anxiety and COVID-19-related job stress. While your job in HR has always been to take care of employee well-being, employees might not have recognized you in this role––so tell them.

Open up the lines of communication. In practical terms, your COVID-19 stress management plan might need to include some sort of information campaign using email, newsletters, an internal web page, or company announcements dedicated to answering COVID-related questions.

To specifically address the issue of grief and emotional well-being, your organization’s communications about COVID-19 stress management need to include resources on employee self-care. Remind your employees to take advantage of their health care benefits, particularly with regards to mental health. If you have an Employee Assistant Program (EAP), make sure everyone knows how to access it. EAPs are free for employees and anonymous, alleviating the financial stress and social stigma that can be associated with seeking mental health counseling.

If your organization is having to let employees go, you can find more specific advice in this article.

What are specific challenges that may cause employees stress when working from home?

Normally, working from home offers many benefits, from increased productivity to better work-life balance. But this situation isn’t normal. Many businesses have had to transition practically overnight to a fully remote workforce (BambooHR is in this camp), meaning that it’s not just a few people here and there calling in to meetings. It’s everyone having to figure out how to communicate and work together in this new arrangement––and an even heavier load on those who support them, such as IT and HR professionals.

Additionally, many employees are working from home with spouses, partners, roommates, or kids in the same space. It’s not just that people have traded a busy office for a busy home environment. Employees face an unprecedented maelstrom of pressures on top of social distancing: homeschooling, limited privacy, and concerns over friends and relatives’ health combine with unique workplace urgency for a devastating effect.

Employees just aren’t going to be able to separate their personal lives from their work, increasing the likelihood of burnout. To combat this, your organization will need to issue clear directives about respecting when employees are on or off the clock (whether that’s literally, in the case of hourly and non-exempt workers, or figuratively, in the case of salaried and exempt workers).

What HR Can Do

Along with giving your employees tips for adjusting to remote work, educate managers on best practices for dealing with remote employees, so they’re better able to mentor and support their teams. More generally, to keep remote employees engaged and emotionally healthy, communicate standards for staying in touch during the workday, retaining or rebuilding team culture, and keeping long-term objectives rather than hourly output in mind.

As Suzanne Lucas, better known as the Evil HR Lady, recently explained, we should never measure productivity by presence, and we definitely can’t expect that right now from employees. “Don’t waste management time auditing every keystroke to make sure people are sitting in front of their computers,” she counsels, adding, “I guarantee you’ll be able to tell if people are slacking by looking at the outcome of their work versus the hours put into doing it.”

Learn how to help your employees feel more valued at work.

What are the specific challenges for employees who have to work onsite?

What if your employees perform jobs that put them in contact with the public? Healthcare workers are the most vulnerable and most essential during this time, facing unimaginable risks and stress at the front lines of the pandemic. However, workers in other industries––e.g., food retail, sanitation, construction, delivery services––are also at risk of exposure, and while they may have less contact with the virus, they also likely don’t have any training or experience in dealing with an outbreak situation, which may leave them feeling helpless or trapped between personal safety and financial obligation.

These workers have to worry about getting infected by someone at work, protecting their family from illness when they come home, working with the public at a time of high panic and stress, and more. Meanwhile, they have all the same personal challenges as the remote employees we discussed in the previous section: respecting social distancing, caring for children home from schools, worrying about loved ones getting sick, etc. Their stress can’t be ignored.

What HR Can Do

Workplace safety has to be your top priority. In the case of hospitals, that responsibility may fall to administrative staff who oversee safety as part of their broader role. But outside of medical facilities, safety is often the responsibility of HR.

That means ensuring employees wash their hands and have access to basic hygiene supplies, like hand sanitizer or soap and warm water. You’ll need to enforce regular disinfection of high-touch areas and ensure managers are communicating proper behavior to every team member. All of these recommendations come from the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) COVID-19 guidance to businesses. You can find more detail on their website.

The CDC has also recommended that people wear masks in public. These can be cloth or homemade masks. While organizations (other than hospitals) are under no obligation to provide such masks, you should allow employees to wear them, especially if they are at high risk of contagion due to age or health. If customers or clients express concerns about employees wearing masks, direct them to the CDC’s guidelines for wearing masks and assure them that this measure helps protect them, too.

What is the best way to help an employee who has health concerns related to COVID-19?

COVID-19 is highly contagious, and it’s very possible that some of your employees might get sick. This will cause job-related stress even if employees only experience mild symptoms, as current health guidelines recommend that those infected separate themselves entirely from family, friends, and even pets, and then remain in quarantine for seven days after their last symptom. Family members who become ill may require constant care, meaning employees might need to take time off to care for them and handle parenting tasks even if they aren’t the ones who are sick.

In addition to these worries, the heightened state of fear stigmatizes those who have been infected as somehow morally at fault. This puts us all in danger because, as professor Valeria Earnshaw explains, “stigma undermines efforts at testing and treating disease. People who worry that they will be socially shunned if they are sick are less likely to get tested for a disease or seek treatment if they experience symptoms.”

What HR Can Do

Most importantly, tell your employees to stay home if they don’t feel well or if they or someone they live with exhibits any COVID-19 symptoms. If employees are worried about taking time off, check to see if they qualify for the new policy recently put in place by the U.S. government. Among other provisions, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) guarantees paid sick leave for employees at small businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

If one of your employees does test positive (or has symptoms), the CDC’s guidelines state that “employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” Making this policy known to your employees will also help them feel more comfortable reporting exposure or illness, thus making everyone safer.

If employees can still work but need to self-isolate, consider being more flexible with allowing remote work. This is assuming your organization hasn’t already moved everyone to working from home or that the position can be done remotely, of course. But take an objective look at your business before dismissing these requests. Working from home helps employees adhere to social distancing recommendations and worry less about exposure to the virus, thus alleviating COVID-19 job stress. Allowing employees to work remotely can also show how your organization values employee health more than preserving the status quo.

Focus on What You Can Do, Not What You Can’t

Going back to Kessler’s concept of anticipatory grief, much of the stress is compounded by feeling helpless in the face of this pandemic. Health and government guidelines shift and change with the developing crisis, employers try to adapt, and employees can end up feeling caught in the middle. And while HR can’t fix every problem, nor should you be expected to, your continued communication and support will be invaluable to help your employees find their way through this pandemic. If they feel like they have support for their job stress, they’ll feel better equipped to face the rest of the crisis.

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Marie-Reine Pugh

Marie-Reine Pugh is focused on making HR simpler for HR professionals and workplaces a better place for everyone. She pulls from her previous experiences as an educator and six years of writing and researching to explore how to create inclusive company cultures that help businesses succeed.