As a benefits leader, you’re likely involved in your organization’s emergency preparations and response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Fortunately, there are already a lot of great resources you can leverage as you think through how this may affect your people, their families, and your organization. But with so much anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus, what should you tell your employees? And what messages should you prioritize?
People want—and need—to hear from you
One thing to keep in mind during times of uncertainty is that your employees are looking for guidance on a very personal level. They’re wondering about risk of infection for themselves and their family members. Because the virus is spreading rapidly and because it’s new and unfamiliar, anxiety levels are especially heightened. Part of what is so scary is the unknown: where, when, and how it will hit. Other unknowns are the potential physical and financial costs to themselves and loved ones. Employees are thinking about how to keep themselves and their family members out of harm’s way. Should they or shouldn’t they commute? Should they or shouldn’t they travel? What will be the ramifications if they cancel a meeting? A recent study on Americans’ general preparedness for the coronavirus reported that 83% of employed Americans are worried about the potential for lost income if they needed to be quarantined. American workers who are paid hourly feel this concern more deeply than salaried workers and there has been a lot of media coverage about the potential cost to low-wage workers.
Crises are opportunities to build trust
Here’s where you come in. You play an incredibly important role in your employees’ lives. So far, many internal communications have been focused on the nuts and bolts of business continuity, travel policies, remote working, office closures, and precautions to prevent infection. These messages are all critical. What’s most important, however, is showing your people (not just telling them) that they matter. What can you do to show your employees that you’re putting their health and safety first? That may take the shape of broad communication or personal decisions and conversations. For example, I was recently told not to worry about canceling travel plans to attend a conference that our company invested money in to sponsor the event, even though we’d lose money if I chose not to go. Receiving that guidance really made me feel like I mattered—and that I was empowered to do what I felt was best for me and my family.
Here are just a few things you can do to reassure and support your people:
- Communicate more frequently. Even if you don’t have all the answers, tell people what you know and what you’re still figuring out. It may seem counterintuitive, but you actually need to communicate more often during times of uncertainty. This will help employees understand that you’re looking out for them and responding proactively to a fluid situation.
- Be sure to respond to employee questions and concerns. Create a systematic way to field and centralize questions and answers, so you can identify patterns in the concerns that employees raise and work through new questions that arise. Plus, greater transparency instills more trust and helps alleviate worries and concerns.
- Leverage your managers. Managers play an especially important role in humanizing your organization and addressing individual concerns. Remind managers to reach out to their teams, collect feedback, and reassure employees that their health and safety matters above all else.
- Encourage the use of technology. A lot can be accomplished through collaborative online tools. Whether you’re using Slack, Microsoft Teams or some other communication tool, explore tips and tricks for making them work effectively for you. (Here are some pointers on being a Microsoft Teams power user.) While you’re at it, try out video conferencing to retain the face-to-face feel of meetings. It might be uncomfortable at first, but there’s nothing you can’t do virtually that you could do face to face. Before you hop on camera, make sure you read up on best practices for video conferencing.
Be empathetic to employees’ needs and concerns. Keeping the dialogue open is the best way to earn respect and loyalty from your employees during uncertain times.
What you may still need to address with employees
If you haven’t already reached out to employees about all the benefits and resources they can leverage, now’s a great time to highlight:
- Programs, including the EAP, that can help employees manage their stress and anxiety
- Good hygiene at work and at home, including staying home when sick, frequent handwashing, and placing alcohol-based hand sanitizers in multiple locations in the office or in conference rooms
- How time off and leave policies will be affected, including what will be considered sick time versus paid and unpaid time off (this is going to be especially critical for hourly workers)
- How employee travel policies will be affected, and what the best ways are to conduct video or teleconference meetings
- Any changes to backup child and elder care policies, including restricted access to center-based care in the event of household exposure
- How your health plan covers preventive care, testing and doctors’ visits—in the case someone believes they were exposed or needs regular care
- Telemedicine as an alternative to doctor’s visits or expensive trips to the emergency room
- Ways to access prescription drugs (including early mail-order renewals, if available, so no one is worried about running out of needed medications)
- Where employees should go for testing if they think they’re sick
- Tips for managing financial well-being, including easing concerns during periods of financial market volatility. (Note, taking advantage of record low mortgage rates could be worth highlighting after more urgent matters are addressed.)
Remember that your people’s physical, mental, and financial health are interrelated and impacted by health crises. Keep in mind that your outreach should acknowledge the potential toll on mind, body, and finances.
For more insights into the potential impacts of the coronavirus on your people and organization, be sure to check out these great resources:
- “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers: Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” CDC, February 2020
- “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” Food and Drug Administration
- “Why Employers Need to Strike a Balance on Communication,” Human Resource Executive
- “COVID-19: Implications for Business,” McKinsey & Company
- “COVID-19,” Occupational Safety and Health Administration
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