What have Covid-19, employee mental health and the 5 stages of grief got in common?

The impact of Covid-19 on individuals is likened by some to the 5 stages of grief. The Kubler-Ross model defines these as: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance. “We’ve all lost our past sense of security and are now trying to navigate through something that seems very unreal. This brings shock, denial and anger,” says Paula Allen, Senior Vice President at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell and part of the Covid-19 response team in the organisation.

While employers are focused right now on ensuring their people have the means to work from home – the practical aspects – it would be all too easy to overlook the emotional aspects.

“Employer communications need to deal with this,” adds Paula. “Helping people work through these stages and get to acceptance as quickly as possible. Those employers that do this well will shoulder this disruption. Those that don’t will probably have difficulties getting back up and running.”

Paula explains there’s a very real risk that rising levels of anxiety will ultimately lead to more cases of depression, with two main triggers right now:

  1. Those with underlying mental health issues due to, say, past grief or perhaps a propensity to anxiety. There’s a risk that the alien and isolated environment they now find themselves in could result in a tipping point, triggering their underlying challenges.
  2. Those families facing significant difficulties managing the frustrations of the current situation: trying to juggle work and kids; the potential for job loss or salary reductions; and understandable financial worries; not to mention the worry of actually contracting the virus.

Consequently, employers should promote early and proactive use of their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), not when people have already reached crisis stage, adds Paula.

“Employees need to do this for their family, if not just for themselves. If parents aren’t mentally strong, their kids will feel this. It’s important for all to understand what you can and cannot control and build healthy routines. This will help you feel and exude a sense of calm and control.”

What is Morneau Shepell doing for its own employees?

 Line managers

The provider has a workstream in place specific to employee support, which works very closely with the communications team. One of their key areas of focus is support for line managers to better manage people, whether they’re remote workers or key workers.

As a first step, this involves making clear to line managers ‘why’ the way they manage needs to change. And, secondly, providing them with the communication toolkits needed to do this.

Remote workers

For remote workers, this is about ensuring contact, reassurance, recognition and morale, not just focusing on the practicalities. It also involves making clear to employees that if their role allows, flexible working hours are fine, says Paula.

“When blending work and home it might help your people to break their day into blocks so that time can be allocated to work and children. This will inevitably lead to a longer day for many. But knowing you have the flexibility to do this is critical.

“Also acknowledge the fact that this is hard for employees. Show appreciation and if certain people are working really hard, consider supporting them with reassurance and recognition.”

Key workers

For key workers, who still have to go into an office or plant, line managers have different focal points. Key worker concerns are going to be much more focused on the health and safety aspects than their remote working counterparts.

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Here, managers need to be totally up to speed on the latest health and safety guidelines related to Covid-19, specifically with regards to physical distancing.

“These employees are, understandably, going to be nervous,” adds Paula. “They’ll feel exposed so the frequency – and means – of contact have to reflect this. For managers, listening, problem solving and communicating are all key.”