The COVID-19 pandemic and the upheavals surrounding it increase anxiety and stress levels among employees and managers. How can we deal with these feelings and limit their harmful effects, or perhaps even benefit from them?

Ghislaine Labelle, CRHA, starts off by reminding us that it’s normal to experience stress and anxiety, and that these emotions have positive roles to play, making us alert, aware of our surroundings, and ready to act: “It’s the body’s alarm system that helps us deal with the unexpected.”

Employees can be expected to experience a wide range of emotions throughout this crisis, which will be expressed in different ways and more or less strongly depending on the individual. However, not everyone has the ability to master their emotions and adapt to the new context. These reactions are legitimate, and managers benefit from being open to them. 

When stress and anxiety rise

Anxiety can cause disorganization or even panic. “When anxiety is out of control, it can lead to behaviours that have nothing to do with reality; that’s what we saw with people who rushed to buy toilet paper [in early March],” says Ghislaine Labelle.

Anxious people:

  • tend to worry too much about themselves or their loved ones;
  • want to control the situation;
  • focus on worst-case scenarios;
  • believe that misfortune can strike at any time—and may see the pandemic as confirmation and validation of that belief.

Significant stress, on the other hand, interferes with concentration and decision-making, and can cause insomnia, digestion difficulties, irritability, and impatience.

The right strategies to adopt as an HR manager

  1. Communicate

For business leaders and HR professionals, communication is a key element. “You need to communicate the available information using the three Cs: calmly, constantly, and clearly, » says Ghislaine Labelle, who believes this is the best approach to foster a sense of security and to limit anxiety and stress.

Jean-Pierre Brun adds a fourth C: consistently. Adopting a communication routine is, in his view, reassuring for the employees to whom these messages are addressed.

He also advises supervisors to keep a list of the names and contact information of all team members close to their workstations, and to ensure that they are in regular contact with everyone, especially those who seem to be extra quiet.

  1. Listen and respond

Workers must also be allowed to voice their concerns and ask questions. You then answer as best you can—if only to say that you do not have the answer yet and that you will provide it as soon as possible.

  1. Create support cells

There is an advantage in forming small groups to ensure regular contact between the organization’s workers in order to reduce the feeling of isolation and allow those individuals who feel despairing to enjoy the support and positive influence of those who are more secure.

Managers may also need support and coaching to learn how to manage large-scale telework and increased worker autonomy. Give them tools to do this and provide discussion (by video conference, for example) to facilitate adapting to this new approach to management.

  1. Lead by example

« As a manager, you are the thermostat, so you have to be positive and use supportive, encouraging language,” maintains Jean-Pierre Brun.

Offering recognition

Congratulations, emoticons, GIFs: even remotely, recognition at work remains essential, according to Jean-Pierre Brun.

  1. Preparing for the future

To drive out dark thoughts and keep minds occupied, plan discussions focused on constructive themes—preparing for everyone’s return to the office, thinking about strategies to put in place in the post-pandemic period, etc.

By linking anxious people with their more optimistic colleagues in such conversations, we can make the best of both perspectives—the positive attitude of the optimists and the awareness of potential obstacles that anxious people may have.

It is also good to set short-term goals, which the team will feel encouraged to achieve.

What to avoid

  1. Denial and trivialization

If managers or directors take the situation lightly, employees may feel more insecure.

Too much information

Anxious people, in particular, should avoid watching or reading news of the pandemic over and over again. A daily update is all that’s needed.

Jean-Pierre Brun also warns managers against excessive communication, for instance on online work platforms. Work should not be further disrupted by bombarding employees with messages.

The right strategies to adopt individually

  1. Focus on areas where there is some control.
  2. Be aware of negative or irrational thoughts, and then try to turn your attention to the prospect of resuming activities after the pandemic.
  3. Treat yourself to simple pleasures every day, and take the time to enjoy them.
  4. Compensate for physical distance with virtual meetings: have a drink or coffee with loved ones on Skype or Facetime, for example.
  5. Take advantage of this slowdown or upheaval to refocus on your personal values.
  6. View the pandemic as an opportunity to discover unexpected resources.
  7. Use the Employee Assistance Program as needed to get support.

Preparing for the post-pandemic period

Ghislaine Labelle urges HR professionals to prepare for the return to more normal activities as they would if they were “returning to work after a period of physical or mental sick leave.”

Here are suggestions from the two specialists for a successful return:

  • Plan activities to welcome and reflect on what has been learned from this period of turmoil, on the successes of this period, on any new progress—with a view not only to preparing for the next episode of this kind, but also to function better now on a day-to-day basis.
  • Discuss everyone’s best and worst experiences during the crisis.
  • Gather and bring teams together, perhaps even reward them.
  • Plan one-on-one support meetings.
  • Be aware that even when you go back to the office, things will not resume “as they were before.” Employees are likely to demand more autonomy and schedule flexibility, having had a taste of it during the crisis.
  • Remain vigilant: Workers who are under high pressure during the crisis will be more sensitive when calm returns and are at risk of faltering.

In closing, there is no need to adopt all of these strategies and suggestions. It’s better to pick the ones that come most naturally to you, that match your most likely behaviours—while remaining aware that major efforts will be needed to deal with this unprecedented situation.


Ghislaine Labelle, CRHA, Fellow

Accredited organizational psychologist and mediator

SCO Consulting Group Inc.

Jean-Pierre Brun, CRHA

Associate Consultant

Human Footprint   Retired Professor of Management, Laval University

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