“You can’t stop the waves–but you can learn how to surf.” Those are the words of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding father of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which Virgin Pulse Institute Chief Medical Officer and President Dr. Rajiv Kumar invokes to describe the current task facing HR leaders. In the rapidly changing, unchartered territory the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust Americans into, anxiety is running high, but, Kumar says, there are ways to temper those feelings, and HR can play a central role in that effort.
Communication is key. Particularly, HR leaders should be communicating with employees frequently, honestly, transparently and empathetically–and aiming to create a sense of unity, says Kumar, who notes Virgin Pulse has created a toolkit of resources for employers navigating COVID-19.
“Remind employees that every single person in the organization, including the CEO, is facing unprecedented upheaval, fear and uncertainty–and that the only way to get through this is by pulling together and supporting each other like never before,” he says.
Clarity is also important, adds Sarah Greenberg, program design lead and lead coach at BetterUp. When employees are all in overdrive, it can be difficult for them to process nuance, she says. So, for instance, if HR is reaching out with resources, “be crystal clear about the type of support you can offer and the choices they have.”
Also, recognize the differences among employees–and how they all may be processing and exhibiting anxiety and stress difficulty.
“Recognize that we can never know the full extent of each person’s situation and try to clearly communicate a variety of supports tackling the various levels of needs, from very real concerns about financial security to very real anxiety,” Greenberg says.
This is also the time for employees to take advantage of employee-assistance programs–and for employers to ensure they know how.
Kumar says EAPs have a lot of potential–they can provide assessments, counseling, referrals and follow-up services–but they’ve long been criticized as being under-utilized, and only tapped in times of crisis.
“Well, this is their time to shine,” he says, “because the coronavirus is affecting every single employee in the workforce, and this global pandemic is truly a crisis of historic proportions.”
EAPs are often designed to be able to help employees address a range of personal or professional challenges: finances, substance abuse, grief, family issues, psychological disorders, stress–all of which are at risk of being aggravated by current events. And, with widespread closures and quarantines, few people are going to be inclined to visit their physician or therapist to seek help.
“This is where EAPs–which primarily deliver their services telephonically–can play a significant role,” Kumar says, noting this approach be a literal lifeline.
But, getting workers to actually take advantage of the EAP is another story.
Greenberg says employers must first establish a sense of psychological safety for employees.
“Employees often hesitate to use EAPs because they aren’t sure what HR is doing with the usage data. Aim high when it comes to transparency and privacy protection,” she says. She notes that clients of BetterUp–which provides professional coaching and immersive learning–have shared that they find it comforting that coaches aren’t part of their organization. “For some, this was a critical precursor for them to share in an honest way and really get value from their experience.”
Communicating that the EAP is available, and how to access resources, is another vital step, says Kumar. Use every possible channel–email, home mailers, the company intranet, benefits platforms and wellbeing solutions. Virgin Pulse, he says, promotes EAPs within its mobile app, and its certified health coaches are trained on how to direct employees to their organizations’ EAPs.
“Leaders have the privilege of being able to make choices that support their people, but they too may have their life turned upside-down,” Greenberg says. Leaders should make time with a professional coach or maintain daily habits, she notes, to ensure they’re in the right frame of mind to be making the many decisions facing them now. And, if it feels appropriate and authentic, leaders should share their journey as a means of normalizing the struggles so many people are going through today.
Kumar says the mantra from Kabat-Zinn can be a guiding principle for HR leaders looking to steady their ship.
“Make sure employees know that we are all learning how to surf right now, together,” he notes, “and if any one of us falls off their surfboard, the rest of us are there to rescue them.”