It is important to understand how to support your employees through COVID-19. In extraordinary times and amidst a situation to which people have had no prior exposure, some people may be feeling strained, fearful and tense – all symptoms of anxiety. Your staff may be experiencing these, or other signs of anxiety – and they would not be alone.
The ongoing pandemic is causing many Australians to experience anxiety. A recent study conducted by Vox Pop Labs in partnership with the ABC revealed an almost 70% increase in the percentage of Australians experiencing feelings of anxiety since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
While knowing you’re not alone might be somewhat helpful, it’s important to understand anxiety, the way it might affect your team, and to provide your team with resources to support them during this time.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety refers to a group of mental health conditions that feature excessive fear and distress that are not easy to control.
Fear is the emotional response to a real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.
Anxiety differs from stress by being persistent and the fear is often excessive or out of proportion to what the feared object would usually produce.
For most people anxiety is a normal response to a perceived threatening, challenging or dangerous situation.
For others, it is a more enduring condition that can fluctuate over time.
If you have staff that experience anxiety, it is important to understand that they are more likely to be experiencing increased symptoms with the condition in this COVID-19 period. Furthermore, staff that have not previously disclosed or shown signs of anxiety may also be experiencing anxiety for the first time.
What are different types of anxiety?
Examples of Anxiety Disorders include:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Panic Disorder
While these conditions can be very different to each other, the thing they tend to have in common is anxiety: a fear that impacts a person’s important functioning over a prolonged period of time.
Unlike stress, anxiety doesn’t go away when the stressor does. To make it a little more confusing, stress, experienced over a long period of time can exacerbate or lead to anxiety.
The long-term nature and uncertainty around an end to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated social distancing and economic impacts provide a real-life example of a long-term stressor that can exacerbate or lead to anxiety.
How does anxiety make people feel?
While everyone is different, some common examples of the way anxiety might make people feel include:
- Sudden excitement or marked irritability
- Feeling of time going slowly
- Excessive worrying or anticipating a problem
- Extremely focused thinking
- Inability to wind down or sleep
- Experiencing feelings of dread or impending doom.
What can anxiety do to the body?
While internal thoughts are affected, the body too can show outward signs of anxiety. Examples include:
- Heart palpitations or ‘heart in throat’
- Raised blood pressure
- Tense muscles
- Sweating, dizziness or fainting
- Stomach problems
- Hypersensitivity to noise, smells, taste or touch.
How do you know if someone is experiencing anxiety?
While it is the role of mental health professionals to diagnose anxiety, it is important that employers and managers are aware of potential signs of anxiety in employees.
These are some of the impacts that anxiety might have on someone’s daily life and employment:
- Avoidance of certain situations
- Low self confidence
- Poor concentration and feeling unable to perform tasks
- Feeling problems are impossible to solve
- Underestimating the ability to cope
- Thoughts becoming increasingly and persistently negative
- Constant worrying or fidgeting
- Sudden bursts of energy, speed or strength
- Experiencing shakiness and/or feeling tired
- Being very still or ‘frozen’
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping.
If your staff are working in the same physical space as you, it may be easier to observe signs of anxiety. However, with many workplaces now offering work from home options, the distance may mean you cannot observe your employees’ symptoms and their impact.
How can you support an employee with anxiety around COVID-19?
The first step to supporting an employee who might be experiencing anxiety, is to talk to them.
Having an honest and warm conversation about your concern for them (not their performance) is a great place to start.
If your team member discloses that they have anxiety, you can take the following steps.
- Ask the individual to explain how their stress/anxiety affects them and ensure you have the individual’s permission to talk about it with others should that be required
- Avoid phrases such as “pull yourself together”, “you’ll get over it”, “it’s not as bad as you think”
- Identify work situations that may trigger stress or anxiety, and consider temporary or permanent adjustments
- Appoint a workplace buddy or mentor to provide personal support
- Find out about the medication they are taking and possible side effects
- Encourage them to speak with your confidential EAP service if you have one.
If your employee does not identify as having anxiety, respect their situation and, if you feel it is appropriate let them know that you are going to share some resources with them, just in case they might be helpful.
Some helpful resources include:
Beyond Blue: Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service
How can you support an employee with anxiety around their job security?
If your employee is struggling with anxiety related to their job security, it will be important to communicate with them clearly about your expectations regarding their role, throughout the pandemic.
If you feel confident your organisation will continue to operate throughout the coming months
Share this with your employees.
If your employee is anxious about potentially losing their job, reassure them that this is unlikely to be the case. Remember that anxiety is the anticipation of future threat – if there is little chance that their job is under threat, let them know.
Even if your business is secure, the tasks your employees complete might need to be modified over the coming months as your business adapts to the changing environment. People struggling with anxiety may struggle with uncertainty. Reassure them that you will let them know in advance if any changes are to occur to their role and appropriate training and support will be provided.
Whenever you’re planning to modify the role or expectations of your staff, be honest and seek their feedback before implementing change. Sometimes simple adjustments that can be made ahead of time based on this feedback. Your staff will feel included in the decision making process and you can avoid unnecessary distress for your employee and ultimately your business.
If you are unsure how your organisation will continue to operate throughout the coming months
If you have uncertainty around the financial security of your business, firstly make sure you are taking care of your own mental health.
Secondly, be honest and empathetic with your team. Let them know they are important to you and that you are doing everything you can to continue to keep your business going and their jobs safe.
Tell them that when you know about upcoming changes, you will let them know and talk things through. While you can’t take away the perceived threat, you can lessen its impact on your team, give them time to prepare and decrease anxiety levels by being upfront and honest.
Providing your employees with the best – an EAP service
Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a fully confidential counselling service available to assist employees and immediate family members in managing personal and work-related concerns.
EAP services are proven to improve employee resilience and work productivity.
The service is provided by qualified psychologists and social workers so you can be confident that your employees, whether they are experiencing anxiety or other mental health concerns, are in good hands.
EAP is short-term support that allows individuals to access timely and effective guidance and support and link staff members to long term solutions if required.
Your team will learn new strategies for optimising their health and wellbeing, develop action plans to improve their health and you may very well notice a difference in their performance and their relationships at work.
If your business does not yet offer an EAP, contact us by calling 1800 629 277 or email email@example.com.
- Fevre, M. L., Matheny, J., & Kolt, G. S. (2003). Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(7), 726-744. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02683940310502412
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.