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How employers can address emotional wellbeing amid COVID-19

Talent|Integrated Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Katie Hansen | April 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the struggles our society was already having with emotional wellbeing.

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Employee wellbeing: Now more than ever

In the coming days Willis Towers Watson’s experts look to expand on numerous hot button issues related to COVID-19 and the workforce. What are the considerations and options out there? Where should employers put their focus? How can employers truly keep their employees in the center of their decision making in these strained times? And how can supporting your most valuable asset, your employees, bring your company through this crisis?

Emotional wellbeing already had the attention of many in our world before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now everything has changed. Things we thought could take a couple of years to implement now cannot wait even a couple more months. Before the crisis, the research on loneliness, mental health, anxiety, burnout and stress was starting to come into focus. We were running our lives faster than we could manage and were not taking care of our emotional states.

Even if we wanted to take care of ourselves, “the system” was not ready. The mental health stigma is real; there is not adequate access to behavioral health providers, we were not changing our daily lives to create more balance and the current state of emotional wellbeing, as we knew it, was unsustainable.

However, employers were starting to recognize the impact this was having on business metrics and success. Our recent Global Benefits Attitude Survey shows employees with reported wellbeing issues are:

  • Five times more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety or depression
  • Twice as likely to be disengaged at work
  • Absent nine more days per year
  • Less socially connected

Employers were starting to provide enhanced support where they could to address the current challenges by:

  • Improving provider access
  • Breaking down the stigma
  • Providing resiliency and mindfulness support
  • Offering increased flexibility

Pandemic has amplified stress for many

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the struggles our society was already having with emotional wellbeing and created additional concerns and barriers. Many people are now feeling more isolated than ever before. They’re experiencing severe anxiety over missing paychecks, dealing with immense stress over additional caregiving responsibilities for their children, elderly parents, or sick family members, feeling uneasy about still going to work every day amid the safety risks, and just unsure about where to turn and how to manage through the unknown and limited control over the situation.

We hear heart breaking stories every day about families and friends not getting to visit elderly loved ones in the nursing home or hospital, cancelling weddings, missing out on the birth of a child, delaying or missing a funeral, turning to alcohol or other drugs as a coping mechanism, and the trauma created when a co-worker falls ill with the virus contracted at work. These are all very real stories that are happening to us and those around us. And it should come as no surprise that this puts a significant and sometimes paralyzing emotional burden on us all.

Employers can help

The good news is we aren’t in this alone. We will get through this but we all need support. As an employer, there are ways to provide support and resources to your employees during this time. Your actions today will be remembered by employees tomorrow and in the process can create a renewed sense of culture where your greatest asset — your employees — feel supported, valued and engaged.

Below are steps you can take to support the emotional challenges and overall wellbeing of your employees

Immediate needs to manage through the crisis

Start by addressing primary needs:

  • Communications: Now is the time for more frequent communications — more supportive and calming messaging, greater leadership presence and transparency and greater focus on ensuring leaders and managers alike are communicating with compassion and empathy to in turn build psychological safety and trust.
    While it seems like there may be communication overload around COVID-19 and the media is often filled with messages of despair, you can differentiate your organization’s messages by focusing on putting employees wellbeing first and ensuring the messages resonate as tailored, supportive and actionable respective to your culture. Through this pandemic, the notion of purpose and humanity have come front and center, with a heightened focus on the need for employee support and reassurance. Your employees will benefit from the messages and leadership that you are able to provide.
  • Flexibility: Be clear with flexible work and leave policies, as appropriate. These should be inclusive of those who are caregiving either from afar or from their homes, on leave for COVID-19 quarantine (self-quarantine or exposure) or grieving the loss of a loved one (COVID-19 related or not). What are your communications for these different employee segments and how are you changing your policies, resources and flexibility to provide enhanced support?
  • Benefits programs: Re-communicate all benefits programs and offerings that are relevant. Make sure your managers are aware of all the offerings and have the information readily available. Remind your employees what they already have access to for themselves, their family and how to find more information. This might include the employee assistance program (EAP), bereavement, childcare, virtual care options, local community resources, wellbeing program, emergency fund, social networks, etc. — You already have a lot of resources in place; remind your employees how that can help.
  • Close benefits gaps: Consider expanding benefits and support where there are current gaps. This may be expanded access to behavioral health providers, promotion of virtual behavioral health providers, less restriction on EAP and mental health benefits, specialized caregiving navigation and resources, enhanced wellbeing resources for financial support, meditation, mindfulness, and sleep, additional virtual social support networks, etc. Learn what resource gaps exist and get creative in solving for those.
  • Connect with your remote workers: If your workforce (or part of it) is now mobilized, tap into strategies to connect and engage with this group that could quickly become isolated, disengaged, and lonely. Encourage video chats and group meetings often. Contemplate ways that you are supporting remote employees differently (physically, emotionally, and socially) than other segments of your workforce such as delivery services and alternative commuter options.
  • Act with empathy: Provide special attention and empathy from leadership to furloughed employees. Communicate regularly that they matter to the company, be honest and transparent, provide reassurance, provide clarity around benefits and promote EAP and local support services.

The COVID-19 crisis is clearly a threat to employee wellbeing. But by addressing wellbeing head on and addressing employee needs, employers can mitigate its impact and be better prepared for the post-pandemic era.

Next term considerations to restore stability

Double down on manager training and communications. Ensure managers are delivering consistent messages to your employees. Plan for what might be coming next — return to work.

  • How do you socialize if required to wear masks?
  • How are you supporting employees as the physical distancing is eventually lifted?
  • Are there flexible policies in coming back to work?
  • How does caregiving shift and how are you supporting that?

Post-pandemic, the “new normal” is likely to look very different from what we once knew. Organizations will need to first learn from other countries that have stepped into this transition and be flexible in their approach once physical distancing is lifted. While this will vary by industry based on infrastructure and way of doing business (e.g., airlines vs. manufacturing vs. retail), it is most certain that employees will feel a sense of apprehension and fear in coming back together. Inclusion and acceptance of each other will be important, as will the continued emphasis on psychological and physical safety.

Continue to evaluate where additional support is needed for your employee population.

  • Is it additional benefits and wellbeing support or refining current programs, coupled with leadership messaging and behaviors that reinforce wellbeing?
  • What has employee feedback looked like and how has utilization changed in the last six months?
  • Do employees feel as though they can speak up and that their voices are heard?
  • Could you benefit from an employee listening strategy?

Evaluate the effectiveness of all vendor programs and partners. In many cases it may make sense to repurpose dollars from some low-utilized or low-valued programs to areas of highest concern, such as emotional support, mental health resources, and onsite services for essential workers.

  • Should any budgets be updated due to change in utilization patterns?
  • Are all programs integrated as they should be?
  • How can you adjust current strategies to better meet the needs of our employee population?

Consider impact of returning staff and ensure emotional wellbeing support is highly visible in communication from leadership, managers, vendor partners and in work teams. The business may have experienced a decline in service and may cause customer dissatisfaction that can be difficult for returning employees to manage, have talking points in place for customers and emotional support available for employees. There may be resentfulness from remaining staff towards those that were furloughed and general low morale.

Operating post-crisis


  1. 01

    Update policies:

    Update all work environment policies and culture strategies to support employees returning to the workplace, or the workplace settling down if it was always running as “normal.” This might include safety integrations, workplace protocols, flexible working, reskilling programs, critical incidence response, Mental Health First Aid training, etc.

  2. 02

    Commitment to the community:

    Partner with community programs and resources to support the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (philanthropy, financial resources, behavioral health providers, etc.). Also determine how you can help foster greater purpose and meaning in work across the organization and workforce. Purpose as we know goes a long way in supporting resilience and wellbeing.

  3. 03

    Employee listening:

    Deploy regular employee pulse surveys to best understand the impact on employees and arm leaders to better manage through the crisis based on data and insight.

  4. 04

    Rethink inclusion and diversity:

    Evaluate the long-term impacts the crisis has had on your employee population groups. Look at the pandemic through an inclusion and diversity lens. Ensure this does not lead to stigma or discrimination of race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status, nor of those employees that may have been impacted by COVID-19. What can you do to make sure different groups of people do not face disproportionate risk?

  5. 05

    Assess your culture:

    How is your culture transforming as a result of this pandemic? Are employees coming together to support one another? What additional support, messaging, or leadership visibility is needed to recreate a more sustainable culture?

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