April 16, 2020

Helping employees cope throughout the five stages of COVID-19

Barbara Veder, VP, Global Clinical Services, Research Lead and Chief Clinician of Morneau Shepell discusses five phases for supporting the workforce during different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many organizations are now settling into new ways of working, and with it, new workplace challenges are arising. Organizations in various regions and countries are experiencing different phases of the pandemic – whether adjusting to the new normal or re-entering the workplace. Organizations will need to implement different tactics and strategies to support employees during these different stages of the pandemic as well as prepare their workforce for life post-COVID-19.

In our recent webinar, Barbara Veder VP, Global Clinical Services, Research Lead and Chief Clinician of Morneau Shepell says maintaining business continuity through each of the five stages is crucial for the success of any business. How we take care of employees throughout this journey, Veder says, is paramount for an organization’s ability to thrive in the future.

“After the pandemic has passed, it is our people who will evaluate how we coped and how they were treated,” she says.

Throughout the webinar, Veder discusses ways that organizations and their employees may respond to the changing landscape and shares what leaders can do to facilitate a productive environment that encourages optimal performance amidst uncertainty. Here are some concepts to consider as you navigate each phase.

Phase one: Minimalizing and mobilizing

This stage involves mobilizing the workforce during a crisis to protect the health of employees while maintaining business continuity. Many organizations are beyond this phase as workforces around the world have set up new work from home arrangements.

Tips for successfully navigating phase one:

As organizations update work from home policies and set their workforce up to work virtually, it is essential that they are considering all contingencies, such as problems with computer equipment or Wi-Fi, so they can respond quickly. As well, organizations must assist the workforce with this transition by keeping people informed and aware of what’s going on with the business, who has contracted the virus, and an estimate of how long the new arrangements will last.

Related: COVID-19: IT is the key to business continuity

Phase two: Forming and adjusting

In this phase, organizations are examining current company performance and how the broader workforce is adjusting to the new normal. Employees are understanding this new reality and considering how long they will be able to cope. This is the phase, Veder says, where resilience comes into play. “Your employees are not thinking about the same personal issues they had three or four weeks ago. They’re thinking about how to care for loved ones and how to contain and adapt to the pandemic.” She underscores that as employees adjust back to a new normal in the following phases, employees’ pre-COVID-19 concerns – such as focusing on career development – will come back into focus and organizations will need to think about how they will support the workforce as their hierarchy of needs change.

Tips for successfully navigating phase two:

Veder encourages organizations to think about how they’re paving the way forward for their workforce and supporting their needs as they will likely have many questions at this stage. Organizations will need to send regular communications to keep employees informed day-to-day. It’s also important to check in with your people and solicit feedback. Managers should check on their teams to ensure that they have the support that they need to be productive. Here, a bit of empathy, taking into account that parents are now home with their kids and life as we know it has changed significantly, is vital, and can go a long way.

Phase three: Adapting to the “new normal”

From a mental health and wellness perspective, Veder says this phase is where employees will struggle the most and the longer this phase lasts, the more difficult it will be for employees to cope. For many, concerns centering around fear and uncertainty may translate to additional anxiety and anger around the circumstances, all while trying to attain an entirely new work-life balance. It is at this time that organizations need to establish and maintain structure and consider the long-term impact on the workforce. Here are some recommendations for organizations to navigate this phase of the pandemic:

Getting people home and encouraging them to stay home: The longer employees are home the more they may find it hard to manage. Reinforcing the government mandates is critical and reminding employees about the importance of self-isolation will be essential at this phase.

Supporting new structures: Encouraging employees to set a structure around their work and personal life is important as they’re likely to blend. Create predictability, such as setting a meeting cadence at a certain time every day or week with leaders and colleagues. There should also be room for flexibility, as people have different personal needs such as taking care of children or other family members.

Celebrating accomplishments: Let employees know that successfully transitioning to a work from home model and protecting the safety of the workforces is an accomplishment itself. It’s important to build in smaller celebrations during this time to help people feel engaged and appreciated.

Building systems of support: Maintain regular touchpoints with managers and colleagues, send communication updates, and connect with one another on a more personal level. Veder reminds us that while working from home, we’re physically distancing but need to connect on a deeper level virtually and show empathy.

Tips for successfully navigating phase three:

Lay out expectations for your team to follow, being mindful that this situation may necessitate a degree of flexibility. Embrace and acknowledge that these times call for a new and changing work-life balance. It’s also important to continue to communicate regularly to keep employees engaged and boost morale. Brief phone calls from managers to their teams can go a long way. Additionally, keeping people’s spirits high and reinforcing bonds of camaraderie through commonality, even though it’s at a distance, is more important than ever during this phase.

Related: COVID-19 crisis: Could you be doing more to support and engage your employees?

Phase four: Readapting and integrating

This phase occurs when it is appropriate to return to the workplace or revert to previous working arrangements, however, this may be harder than expected for people to handle. Veder explains that how organizations lead and ensure business continuity – especially at this stage – is critical and will set the pace for your organization for years to come.

“As organizational leaders, we must always anticipate the next couple of phases and think about where people will be tomorrow,” she emphasizes.

The go-forward way of operating will change for many organizations. Leaders need to think about how to support employees as they transition back to normal. Here are a few considerations:

  • Planning for the return of people and equipment
  • Re-evaluating what actually requires in-person contact
  • Supporting individual grief and loss
  • Accommodating continued work from home or modified schedules
  • Adapting to changes in the way work is done going forward
  • Documenting and keeping records of lessons learned
  • Celebrating efforts and recognizing struggle

Organizations may begin to consider what functions can be done virtually and how effectively individuals may continue to work from home. Is it necessary for all functions to be in-person, on-site, or in office? After weeks of virtual working arrangements, the answer may be ‘no’ for more services than we anticipate. Successfully entering this phase requires consistent and careful reflection throughout the crisis.

Read more: How three HR leaders are navigating through a global health crisis

Tips for successfully navigating phase four:

Organizations should document their processes carefully. As you evaluate the ways that employees cope and rise to specific situations, take careful notes of what works and what doesn't. Veder encourages leaders to consider how well-prepared their organization was before the crisis and incorporate these lessons into future crisis response plans.

Related: Employer response guide for COVID-19

Phase five: Integrating and grieving post-incident

Organizations that are resilient can adapt and revert to normal a lot faster than those left unprepared. This starts with understanding how employees are coping post-pandemic. For example, identifying employees who will continue to struggle and setting a plan in place to help them cope. Organizations will need to pay special attention to mental health as people make their way back to work. Some may experience anxiety due to the trauma that is currently unfolding. Be prepared to provide varying degrees of mental health support post-COVID-19 as the experience will unfold differently for every person.

“Employees are looking to see if your organization is compassionate and caring, and that you’re managing the business model in a realistic and fair way. People will hold you to this when they come back to the workplace,” Veder says.

Tips for successfully navigating phase five:

Organizations should allow employees to provide honest feedback about how they perceive things were handled during and after the crisis and incorporate that input moving forward.

Related: COVID-19: Mental health implications

Ensuring resiliency moving forward

Communication, Veder emphasizes, is a fundamental part of each phase. “Take your people on a journey and let them in on what you’re thinking. They’re staying informed by the media and you need to do the same for your organization,” she notes.

Organizations will also need to reflect on the effectiveness of their crisis preparedness plan by considering the following:

  • How prepared was the organization?
  • What are learned lessons?
  • What didn’t work or needed to be adjusted?
  • Will you be ready next time?

As you move through each of the stages mentioned above, document successes and failures carefully and use that information to craft a stable, supportive environment for employees. Communicate and engage with your employees on a routine basis to strengthen connections. As well, use this time of uncertainty to refine your procedures and prepare to welcome back a workforce that will have diverse needs and new expectations. How organizations adapt amidst crises and uncertainty will define success in the future.

Watch the webinar to learn more about planning and preparing for emerging workplace issues post-COVID-19

Lisa Bull

Lisa Bull is Vice President, Employee and Leadership Learning at Ceridian. She oversees all Leadership Training Programs and the Talent Excellence Program and also shares responsibility for Ceridian’s On-Boarding Program and mentorship initiatives.

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