Protecting the Mental Health of Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic

IMPORTANT UPDATE: COVID-19 EMERGENCY BILL PASSED BY HOUSE

Early Saturday morning, March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 363-40 to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R.6201) (the “Bill”), a sweeping piece of legislation aimed at reducing the economic impact of the 2019 novel coronavirus (“coronavirus” or “COVID-19”) on workers and their families.  The bill if passed into law will guaranteed paid sick time and family leave for certain workers. Please note this is a bill and not a law at this point.For more information about the legislation CLICK HERE.

Protecting the Mental Health of Employees

As we are still learning about Coronavirus (COVID-19), it naturally can illicit feelings of fear, anxiety and worry in employees. On March 10th, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a live Q&A on mental health in the midst of COVID-19 during which WHO mental health expert Aiysha Malik discussed stress management at time of disease outbreaks, such as Coronavirus. In emergency situations, mental health can decline and this is a really important time to focus on strategies to mitigate and help to prevent stress and fear.

Fear is a response to a perceived or actual threat of danger. Also linked to that is anxiety, worry and stress when things are unknown or uncertain. There are many questions surrounding Coronavirus, and employees may find themselves in a panic or distress. There are a few take aways from the discussion with WHO mental health expert Aiysha Malik for employers to consider as they navigate Coronavirus, shared below:

  • Reduce the spread of misinformation and rumors. It is important to repeat the message that fear and anxiety are a normal part of an individual’s response to emergency situations such as an outbreak of an illness. To manage or minimize fear, a key goal is to reduce the spread of misinformation and rumors, both of which can exacerbate fear. Employers can do this by sharing accurate updates with employees to make sure they are educated with facts obtained from credible scientific sources like WHO, CDC and local health departments.
  • Our words can perpetuate or reduce health-related stigma. It’s important to recognize that there is also a health-related stigma as a result of the Coronavirus. This stigma can result in the experience of rejection, exclusion or acts of discrimination which can be very harmful, mentally and physically. WHO mental health expert Aiysha Malik reiterates that words are very powerful during these times, and that we can use our words to either perpetuate stigma or to reduce it by not contributing that COVID-19 is associated with any particular demographic or location. It is a global issues and we must all do our part not to attach it to any particular group; we all have a role to play to minimize discrimination and bullying.
  • We can also use language to reduce stigma when we talk about COVID-19 by separating the illness from the person who may have been infected by using alternative, person-centered phrasing. By avoiding the use of words like “victims”, “suspected cases” and any other terminology that causes a person or group of people to take on the identity of the virus, we can all help reduce the health-related stigma induced by Coronavirus, and any other viruses.
  • Direct employees to utilize any mental health supports that are in place if they feel they are in need of emotional or social support. The average individual and those with mental health conditions are especially vulnerable during emergencies and need access to mental health care.
  • Communicate to employees the importance of minimizing the amount of information received from social media and minimize the amount of time exposed to Coronavirus news which can cause additional distress.
  • Communicate to employees the importance of maintaining self-care routines. Continuing to eat a healthy diet, getting physical activity, seeking social support as needed, and minimizing participation in health risk behaviors that can be detrimental to mental health and wellbeing.

It is necessary to provide kindness and compassion to all employees during this time of uncertainty and fear. Those people in our lives who may be exhibiting differing behavior based on the changes occurring as a result of schools closing, offices closing, and stigma related to the virus are in need of additional support.

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