COVID-19 employee communications and the five stages of grief

What best practice can we take from our wellbeing partner LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, based in Toronto, Canada? Here, we interview Paula Allen, Senior Vice President at Morneau Shepell and part of the core COVID-19 response team in the organisation.

While employers in the UK are, quite rightly, focused squarely on the practical aspects of business continuity, it would be all too easy to overlook the needs of your people: the emotional aspects. Every business continuity plan must start with people. “We’ve heard the impact of COVID-19 likened to the 5 stages of grief,” says Paula. “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.”
The Kubler-Ross model outlines the five stages of grief as denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance.
“Employer communications need to deal with this, 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, so employers should promote early and proactive use of their EAP, not when people have already reached crisis stage. 
“Employees need to do this for their family, if not just for themselves,” adds Paula. “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.”
Right now, there are two main triggers of mental health issues about which employers need to be aware, explains Paula. 
Firstly, those people 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.
Secondly, some families might have significant difficulties managing the frustrations brought to bear by 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.
In short, it’s important that employers help ensure everyone has access to both the practical and clinical support they might need, when they need it.
The Generali EAP from LifeWorks, along with other early intervention services that form part of our integrated care pathways, is available to all employees of income protection clients and their dependants, whether insured under the policy or not.
Please note that now community Counsellors, Therapists, Psychologists and Psychiatrists have had to close their physical doors, the service has gone fully digital.
The total wellbeing provider ensures central management of all communications, which may be broadly split as follows as the situation with COVID-19 evolves:
  • Updates on the back of government announcements;
  • Practical information to help people plan and manage their day, with a specific emphasis on helping individuals feel in control and connected via technology to friends, family, colleagues and line managers.
  • Reminders about how to access clinical resources - in terms of digital and telephonic counselling - and practical scenarios to help people understand in which circumstances such services would prove valuable.
  • All of the above is also included as part of the LifeWorks’ app, available via the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store, which includes a personalised newsfeed of wellbeing content, plus a community news hub with targeted posts and push notifications. This allows employers to share personal and team news, plus distribute business communications and information on benefits directly to employees’ phones.
The provider also 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. 
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.”
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. 
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.”
Of course, in the midst of all the current fear and uncertainty, laughter, social conversations, connecting as people - not just work colleagues - are all essential too. 
“Having fun is part of keeping healthy,” says Paula. “You can have all the hand sanitiser in the world ... but if you haven’t had a laugh all day, your mental health is going to suffer.”
To find out more about how LifeWorks’ EAP can help you and your people during the COVID-19 crisis, please click here.