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Managing Employee Stress and Anxiety During the Coronavirus

Some practical, evidence-based advice for managers.

We are now in the midst of a pandemic, and the impact of the coronavirus is increasingly being felt across the United States. As someone interested in organizational behavior, I've been thinking about how these unfolding events affect employees.

These thoughts were most pronounced last week when I was forced to cancel my family’s spring break plans and spend several hours interacting, over the phone and via email, with frontline employees working for various service providers. It was clear that these workers were under tremendous stress.

During one call with a ticket provider, I asked the agent how things were going, and he said that events were being canceled by the minute across the country, which was generating a torrent of calls from disappointed, frustrated, and angry customers. I spoke to an agent at a transportation company who was stressed and irritated by the rules at her company that did not allow her to waive cancellation fees because I had already canceled my travel plans using their website. I exchanged emails with a customer service manager at a theater who thanked me when I expressed gratitude for the excellent service that she and her team had provided.

Since then, I have also been in touch with many faculty members, at my university and others, who are scrambling to convert their face-to-face classes to an online format and to learn how to use distance-learning platforms. Sadly, I have also heard from two former students who have already lost their jobs because of the economic distress facing their companies.

In short, this is a calamitous time, and employees are under tremendous stress, both personally and professionally. For many, this stress is undoubtedly exacerbated by the need to engage in social distancing, which can make people feel even more isolated. What, then, can managers do to help workers navigate this difficult time?

First, it is well known that ambiguity contributes to employee stress and anxiety, and this pandemic is creating tremendous uncertainty; indeed, it is still unclear how long this pandemic will last and how devastating it will ultimately be. Prior research indicates that companies can help reduce uncertainty by communicating openly and honestly with employees.

By being more transparent and discussing worst-case scenarios, managers cannot only reduce stress but also other dysfunctional outcomes, like increased gossip and decreased commitment, which often occurs when employees are faced with ambiguous situations. Furthermore, information sharing is often seen as an indicator of trust, so managers who are more open are also likely to be seen as more credible and trustworthy.

Second, a significant line of research indicates that stress is greater when employees are working in contexts with high demands and low control. In other words, jobs are especially stressful when they are characterized by heavy workloads, time pressure, and intense concentration combined with low levels of autonomy and decision-making input. In fact, a recent study found that jobs with low control and high demands are not just more stressful, but also may also shorten employees’ life expectancy.

Unfortunately, this harmful combination is evident in the experiences currently facing workers in a variety of industries—from health care to customer service. Although managers may be less able to reduce job demands during this pandemic, they should be able to empower their workers by giving them greater autonomy and decision-making authority, and doing so can make a meaningful difference. Indeed, in that same study, when employees were given greater control, researchers found that high job demands were actually associated with greater life expectancy.

A third perspective suggests that reactions to job stressors are often a matter of perception. In particular, when employees view stressful situations as a challenge, they tend to exhibit greater motivation and performance; however, when those stress factors are seen as a hindrance or obstacle to achieving their goals, employees’ motivation and performance tend to suffer. Employees are especially likely to feel hindered by things like unclear objectives, conflicting requests, red tape, organizational politics, and other hassles.

The idea of challenge-versus-hindrance appraisals suggests that managers should help their employees see this difficult time as an opportunity for them to grow, develop, and help others. At the same time, managers should do their best to eliminate bureaucratic headaches that make it more difficult for employees to carry out their duties. For instance, some organizations have rules that make it difficult for employees to work from home or to do so without feeling like they are under constant surveillance. Such policies only increase employee stress.

The coronavirus is here, and it is disrupting our way of life. Those who are fortunate enough to keep their jobs will need to find new ways of working. During this difficult time, managers need to be especially mindful of the stress and anxiety of their workers. By providing more open and honest communication, empowering their employees, and removing roadblocks, managers can help make this stressful time less overwhelming.

Beyond these actions, managers should be virtually, if not physically, available and present for their employees. Indeed, we know that social support can help people cope with stress, so social distancing needs to be more about physical separation than social or psychological isolation as we deal with this pandemic.

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