COVID-19: Why employers must help workers to emotionally self-regulate

Written by
Dr Alan Watkins, Founder and CEO, Complete

16 Mar 2020

16 Mar 2020 • by Dr Alan Watkins, Founder and CEO, Complete

Encouraging your people to work from home due to COVID-19 isn’t enough. Managing their fear and anxiety is vital, argues Dr Alan Watkins.

As a medical doctor, with a degree in psychology and a PhD in immunology, I have been fascinated to see the global psychological response to the immune challenge to our health that accompanies the COVID-19 pandemic. 

COVID-19, ethics and HR

Most organisations understand their legal and moral responsibility towards their employees. Many have pointed staff towards practical advice – hopefully from reputable sources, such as the NHS and World Health Organization. 

That practical advice has mainly revolved around hand washing, social distancing and making plans to work from home, where possible. But given the profound interaction between a human being’s psychology and immunology, this guidance is not enough.

Organisations must do much more if they genuinely care about their employees. 

COVID-19 and anxiety: Fear damages our immune response

The stress hormone cortisol impairs human immunity more than anything else. The greater the level of fear and anxiety we experience, the higher the level of cortisol we have coursing around our body. In essence, the more we panic, the less effective our immune system becomes and the more likely we are to become infected if exposed to the virus. 

How well we cope with the virus if we do become infected is also significantly influenced by our cortisol levels. The more anxious we feel, the more likely the virus will be to replicate and the more likely we are to experience complications such as pneumonia – which is the thing that is killing people with Covid-19. Furthermore, the more anxious we are, the more likely the virus will linger and replicate in our bodies and this may actually make us more contagious to others. 

Tesponsible organisations need not only to offer practical guidance to their people, but to offer emotional guidance too. They have a responsibility to help employees calm rather than fuel the panic and anxiety. In fact, reducing fear and anxiety for employees must be a priority for all organisations. 

Information matters

Our workforce is being bombarded by scary stories on mainstream and social media. People’s anxieties are being fed by the constant flow of news, rumour and speculation. While there is little control organisations can exert over the news reaching their employees from outside, they should take care not to amplify employee fears in their own internal communications. 

The right information helps to reduce anxieties – and good internal communication is a start when it comes to addressing this emotional aspect of the current pandemic. But practical guidance only goes so far; some messages might even directly increase fears and anxieties. 

COVID-19, working from home and open lines of communication

Where they are able to, many employees are being encouraged to work from home. They might also be asked to self-isolate if they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. However, social distancing, while absolutely necessary from a physical health perspective, can also affect our mental health, creating feelings of isolation which heightens anxiety. Without social support networks in your office, you may feel less able to deal with the anxieties you face. 

How to reduce fear and panic in employees

All of this means that the best advice I can offer organisations, right now, to help them reduce the fear and anxieties of their employees, is to help their workforce to emotionally self-regulate. In other words, to help them move away from a state of fear and anxiety towards a state of resolve.

Embrace the classically British mantra: “Keep Calm and Carry On!”. Panic will not help you. It will undermine your immunity and make you more likely to make the wrong choices for your situation. 

Effective emotional regulation starts with stabilising your breathing. This means breathing rhythmically and evenly through the heart area. (Not deep breathing and not abdominal breathing.) Such a breathing pattern stabilises your biology. Then try, deliberately, to experience a state of optimism, resolve or patience. Really try to feel this emotion in your body rather than just thinking it. Positive thinking won’t cut it. Positive feeling will increase the levels of the vitality hormone DHEA in your system. DHEA is the body’s main antidote to cortisol. 

Enabling employees to become masters of their own emotional state is critical to reducing fear and anxiety. It’s clearly very relevant to the current pandemic crisis and it’s my strongest piece of advice for organisations. Frankly, I believe it’s something that will soon be seen as central to any effective employee wellbeing programme.

Dr Alan Watkins is co-author of HR (R)Evolution: Change The Workplace, Change The World

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