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COVID-19 is stressing out workers: Here’s how leaders can respond

March 30, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters

Photo: Getty Images

In just two weeks, Canada has seen an upheaval in the way work is being done. This has caused most workers to fit into one of three categories:

  • Those deemed essential who must come to work – including police, fire, paramedics, grocery store and pharmacy employees, health care workers, media, truckers and flight crews.
  • Those sent home but continuing to work remotely: many office and administrative staff.
  • Those laid off and waiting to return to work.

Each situation a worker finds themselves in requires a different leadership support response. Leaders must recognize the new reality and the added stress. Ongoing stress is a hazard.

Whenever we have a difference between what we want and what we have this leads to stress.

What’s unique about stress is that two people can be in the same situation and have different experiences. One may do well while the other may be upset and overwhelmed.


When our perception of a situation is stressful this turns on our flight or fight reaction, our body’s natural defence system.

The system prepares the body for crisis by releasing hormones and turning off things like the immune system so the body has more energy to prepare to fight or flee. The challenge with this system is it doesn’t half turn on; it’s either on or off.

It was designed for our survival, like to run from a tiger so we don’t become its supper.

The more this system turns on, the more it causes wear and tear to the mind and body and drains resources. This can be especially relevant in a time like we’re experiencing now with COVID-19.

The challenges associated with working from home, managing relationships, going to work where there’s risk of contracting the virus, and financial worries are examples of stressors that can result in upset and fear that can turn on our fight or flight system on a regular basis. Stress kills, and if let run can erode our mental health.

Pulled from all sides

On top of the disruption or increase in work, many employees may be feeling uncertainty and increased worry.

Schools have been shut down, as have may daycares and extracurricular activities, and this has created additional challenges for parents. Many now can’t visit their elderly parents, or they struggle to figure out how to get them the care they need while protecting them from COVID-19. Outside of the family unit, people aren’t allowed to gather in groups bigger than five.

The increased stress, new changes to society’s structure and increased concerns about isolation will, over the coming weeks, continue to challenge workers’ resilience.

Employers can help reduce the stress by removing some of the worries by asking employees how they’re doing, showing they care by their actions, and providing transparency.

Employers can’t make COVID-19 go away, but they can provide employees with support to help them build their mental fitness and demonstrate that they care. For each of the three groups there are different micro actions that may help. We believe allowing all employees to develop their mental fitness is warranted, as we can’t assume all employees know how to maintain their mental health over an extended period of stress.

Supporting people still working

For those still on the front lines, work has probably gotten (or will get) busier. Leaders in this position can ensure  workers have the resources they need to do their job. Non-essential tasks should be delayed, and when feasible, extra staff should be brought in.

Most importantly, leaders — especially senior leaders — should acknowledge that this is a hard time and thank the workers for their effort as we all work to overcome the effects of COVID-19.

Use specific examples of where workers have gone above the normal call of duty.

Supporting people at home

For workers at home, isolation and competing distractions will likely be the biggest issue they face. Employers should recognize that with increased childcare demands from school closures and working without optimal workstation setups at their kitchen table, capabilities will be decreased.

Make sure workers know which tasks to prioritize, and show flexibility on deadlines.

Workers may not be able to meet a noon deadline but will have some time after the kids are in bed. Employers should also take the lead in social connections. Using programs like Facetime, Skype or Zoom will allow workers to stay connected to each other and reduce some of the feelings of isolation. Don’t assume employees feel connected — ask, and ask again.

Supporting people laid off

Stay in contact with your workers. When COVID-19 has passed — and it will pass — you will want your workers back. Keep in touch with them through email or even a short video to update them on what’s happening. Even an update that says little is better than no update at all.

Provide supports you can afford. If you have an employee and family assistance program and can afford it, keep these employees on the program, and provide them with local mental health supports like the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Send them useful information. Many workers will be eligible for the government’s new assistance programs. Do the research for the workers to send targeted, direct information about which forms to fill out, and what programs are best suited for their situation.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. For more information, visit https://www.howatthr.com. Troy Winters is the senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa. For more information, visit https://cupe.ca/

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