Help Alleviate the Anxieties of Employees Working from Home

Remind workers about EAPs and other resources, and address tech issues

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS March 26, 2020
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With untold numbers of employees now working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, employers are being asked to provide emotional support and counseling that can improve employees' mental and emotional health. Guiding workers through difficulties using new technology can also reduce employees' stress levels and help them feel more secure about working remotely for the first time.

"As global economies are pummeled and work routines disrupted, employers need to communicate with employees in a manner that makes them feel supported and cared for," said Henry Albrecht, CEO and founder of Limeade, an employee engagement software company.

He suggested employers take these actions to help alleviate stress and boost productivity from home:

  • Administer small surveys frequently to gauge how your employees are feeling and identify shifts in attitude, so you can adjust communications plans accordingly.
  • Reach out to the entire company with communications on the situation and allow for real-time employee feedback.
  • Provide weekly guidance on key topics like self-care and staying safe.
  • Call out relevant company resources such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or hotline, as discussed in more detail below.
  • Tell the workforce what the company is doing, how you're doing it and what is likely to happen next. Help them feel confident that any scenario has been accounted for.

"Employees look to their executive teams during times of crisis," Albrecht said. "Now is the time your people need you the most. Your communication and the actions you take must be swift, clear and supportive."

Bring EAPs Out from the Shadows

"Given the way that coronavirus is rapidly upending our daily lives and routine, EAPs can step in and play a crucial role to help employees manage this change and the stress that comes with it," said Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health, an EAP provider.

Employees may be suddenly working from home for the first time and need to adjust to a new work environment or the feeling of isolation that comes with being away from the office, she noted. As schools close, "parents may be trying to manage their kids on top of work responsibilities. Even just trying to absorb the news can be overwhelming."

If your company offers access to an EAP, remind your employees of that. EAPs typically have counseling to help with a moment of crisis, digital resources to help reduce anxiety and assistance with identifying backup childcare, for instance.

"The impact of stress caused by this uncertain environment will likely hit more of your employees than COVID-19 will," said Helen Calvin, chief revenue officer at Jellyvision, a provider of benefits and financial guidance software. The mental strain can have health side effects, she noted, so "pointing your employees to your EAP can be as important as pointing them to your health plan."

Uncertainty and financial duress "can cause people to make rash decisions, like pillage their 401(k) or cancel their health savings account contributions," she added. "Your EAP and other support resources can help calm employees and curb them from making the kinds of irrevocable decisions that could leave financial scars for years to come."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

Spread the Word

Company leaders should openly discuss the effect that the pandemic is having on employees' mental wellbeing, McNulty said. "We're all facing these difficulties," she noted, "yet it's easy for someone who is now at home to think they are the only one with stress. Leaders should be honest about the strain this is causing and underscore that the EAP is available and ready to help."

Calvin offered these suggestions for getting the word out:

  • Use clear calls to action. For example, rather than highlighting the term "EAP," tell employees that they can go book a free therapy visit.
  • Destigmatize its use through storytelling. Tell about an average employee having completely reasonable struggles and give an example of what the employee used the EAP for and how it helped.
  • Be clear that it's part and parcel with their other benefits (they never had to "elect" it), and whether it is free. It's easy to take for granted that employees are aware of that critical fact.

EAPs themselves are adjusting to meet the needs of this crisis, McNulty said. For example, Aetna's EAP, Resources for Living, developed an initial slate of materials to help employers manage the anxiety around coronavirus and is producing more to help employees and their families adjust to being at home. This includes webinars and videos on alleviating stress and helping children cope, and articles on working remotely and staying connected. The EAP also identifies services to support students whose schools are closing, and medication and food delivery services for people who need to stay home.

Address Tech Worries

"Senior leaders need to work together with HR, legal and IT teams to ensure there are proper resources to accommodate long-term working from home," said Jeff Christianson, chief legal officer at Nintex, a business software firm.

Employees will feel less stressed if they know that the IT department is there to help them if they have tech problems, which means ensuring that the IT department has adequate infrastructure and personnel to accommodate the number of employees working at home, he noted.

In addition, employees who aren't exempt from overtime pay under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act will feel more secure about working remotely if they're confident about using online platforms or other systems to track their hours, Christianson said.

"A lot can be accomplished through collaborative online tools," said Megan Yost, vice president and engagement strategist at benefits communications firm Segal Benz. "Whether you're using Slack, Microsoft Teams or some other communication tool, explore tips and tricks for making them work effectively for you."

Videoconferencing can retain the face-to-face feel of meetings, but she suggested sharing tips about how to make the best use of this technology.

In all employee communications and interactions, "be empathetic to employees' needs and concerns, and keep the dialogue open," Yost said.

Related SHRM Articles:

Coronavirus Adds to IT Staffing Challenges, SHRM Online, March 2020

Employers Enhance Emotional and Mental Health Benefits for 2020, SHRM Online, October 2019

Underused EAPs Are a Missed Opportunity to Help Workers, SHRM Online, August 2019

Different Demographic Groups Experience Mental Health Challenges in Unique Ways, SHRM Online, May 2019


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