Workforce Health + Benefits

Ideas to Support Employees During Times of Crisis

It’s extremely important to prioritize emotional well-being in the workplace, now more than ever. Our recent webinar with Nicole Grasso, Ashley Neuman and Dr. Kellie Kirksey was all about how employees mental health has been impacted not only by COVID-19 but also social injustice and national protests, and how employers can respond and support their employees. Here’s a brief summary of what was covered, plus additional data about stress in America and its causes and effects. For more details, be sure to watch the recording.

Mental Health America Screening Data: May 2020

Mental Health America released online screening data for anxiety and depression that show stress management is almost no longer generally relevant to people because their stress has moved from everyday stressors that could be considered somewhat normal to levels of distress and traumatic levels of stress. Here’s a recap of the data:

Anxiety Screenings Up 370%

Anxiety screenings completed per day in May 2020, compared to January.

Depression Screenings Up 394%

Depression screenings completed per day in May 2020, compared to January.

Additional Positive Depression and Anxiety Screening Results

There have been at least 88,405 additional positive depression and anxiety screening results over expected (using November 2019-January 2020 average as a baseline).

The Greatest Contributor to Mental Health Problems Right Now

"Loneliness and isolation" are cited by the greatest percent of moderate to severe depression and anxiety screeners as contributing to mental health problems “right now.”

Special populations are also experiencing high anxiety and depression. Impacts on mental health are more pronounced in young people, and also in the LGBTQ community, caregivers, students, veterans/active duty and people with chronic health conditions.

What is more concerning is that this data is based on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people, it was captured before the death of George Floyd, setting off weeks of protests over social injustice and police violence. Anyone could expect that these numbers would be worse for June 2020.

New and Worsening Sources of Stress

To better understand how individuals are coping with the extreme stress first brought on by COVID-19 and exacerbated by current civil unrest, the American Psychological Association (APA) adapted their Stress in America poll into a monthly analysis of stressors and stress levels.

Here’s an update from the APA on the sources of stress from their Wave 2 of the COVID-19 tracker, conducted May 21-June 3, 2020 and the additional poll about current civil unrest, conducted June 9-11, 2020.

“The future of our nation”

Following the death of George Floyd, more than 8 in 10 Americans (83%) say the future of our nation is a significant source of stress, up from 69% in 2019.


From May to June, the proportion of black Americans who say discrimination is a significant source of stress has increased from 42% to 55%.

“Police violence towards minorities”

71% of Americans say police violence toward minorities is a significant source of stress. At the same time, most Americans (67%) believe the current movement against systemic racism and police brutality is going to lead to meaningful change in America.

Acknowledging Grief as a Stressor Related to COVID-19 and Social Injustice

Grief over a loved one has always been a source of stress for those experiencing it. However, grief as a coping mechanism is not only characterized by losing someone you know or who is close to you. Grief can also come from a loss of a sense of normalcy, loss of a job, the end of a relationship, bankruptcy, financial changes, and disappointment.

Repeated trauma and violence, particularly in communities of color, can also cause feelings of grief, as well as complex and chronic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by repeated exposure to visual images of the trauma.

As Dr. Kellie Kirksey explained on our recent webinar, “I do a lot of work in pain management, and it's the unexpressed emotions of fear, anger, grief that cause, and are connected to the chronic migraine, the chronic physical pain, the gastrointestinal issues. So people go into the physician for really the physical manifestations of that societal trauma and institutional racism. I'll call it, you know, what it is because the systems are in place that have prevented an equality of care. I mean, because when we even talk about COVID-19, it's disproportionately impacted people of color. I know many, many people that have died. My family members that have died, so that grief of the pandemic, and I still have to go to work. We still have to go to work. Then the grief of repeated murders of black people on the news, now we still have to go to work and function. That is a public health crisis.

The Impact of Stress on the Body

In a reaction to stressors, the body releases cortisol. Cortisol is ordinarily anti-inflammatory, however chronic elevation of cortisol levels in the blood can be likened to a poison that can cause a massive amount of inflammation in the body and produce a damaging impact to the immune system.

High stress levels can lead to chronic inflammation, which can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

Sustained, long-term stress also puts individuals at higher risk for developing cardiovascular problems like a fast heart rate and heart disease, gastric ulcers, type 2 diabetes, various cancers and mental decline.

For more information about stress and the immune system, watch the recording of our Back to Work With COVID-19 webinar with Dr. Leonard Calabrese, Head of the RJ Fasenmyer Center for Clinical Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic.

How Employers Can Support Their Employees During Times of Crisis

How employers should respond genuinely depends on what their workforce is going through. As a society, we’ve all been impacted in one way or another by COVID-19 and many are impacted by social injustice.

Many employers were able to react very quickly to COVID-19 and call out how they were keeping employees and customers safe. Where is that same reactivity to the societal trauma and emotional distress caused by discrimination against people of color?

Whether your organization is reacting to COVID-19, or the social injustice, no one is going to “get tired” of hearing that their employer is advocating for them. You can’t over-communicate to your employees when it comes to their safety and well-being.

Ideas For Employers To Support Employee Well-Being

For employers who might not have crises-oriented support in place already, that’s okay. But while you create a plan for the future, you must still acknowledge your employees’ challenges and stressors, and do your best to look for resources inside and outside of your organization to support them right now.

Here are a few ideas on how to support your employees in your workplace during this time:

  • Learn more about the five stages of grief to better empathize with and support your employees.
  • Acknowledge the grief and stress caused by COVID-19 and current social injustice and the impact it may have on your employees’ engagement, productivity and overall well-being. 
  • Send out an anonymous survey to employees to see how people are being impacted and their stress levels and to guide your support strategy: What do you need to invest in? What offerings do you currently have that can offer support?
  • Update employees about your employee assistance program (EAP) and what tools and resources are available to help.
  • Empower managers to check in more frequently with their direct reports by educating them on signs and symptoms of grief, stress and burnout
  • Re-evaluate your paid time off policies and normalizing + encouraging PTO usage for stress relief and improving mental and physical health.
  • Creating a list of local resources that may be providing financial or food support for furloughed employees or whose spouses are without work and those who are struggling financially from the impacts of COVID-19.
  • Consider adjusting your wellness program plan design and incentives towards supporting employees emotional well-being through coaching.
  • Hold meetings with your leadership team to create inclusion, bias and diversity training and practices in hiring and promotions for your organization and update employees on your progress.

Again, if you haven’t identified an action plan yet, it’s okay. There is no shame in letting employees know that you're working on it. But you don’t have to wait until you have the details nailed down. Start to change the trajectory today. By acknowledging it and updating employees on your progress, you can create a safer, more compassionate place for everyone to work.

Additional Resources to Support Employees Emotional Health and Well-Being

Stress + Emotional Well-Being in the Workplace Webinar Recording

Download the webinar recording and additional resources for additional ideas about how to support employees, steps you can take to create a more inclusive and empathetic culture, the Five Stages of Grief, and conversation starters with coworkers:

watch now blog cta3

Tips for Navigating the Emotions of a Public Health Crisis: Cleveland Clinic Article

“We are experiencing a lot of disappointment right now — in both small and big ways — and grief is going to be a factor,” says clinical health psychologist Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP

How do we go about dealing with all of these difficult and unexpected feelings bubbling up? There’s no right or wrong way. This article lists several ideas that may help people cope with current events.

Inclusion + Diversity Training and Resources

For more information about creating a more culturally-competent, inclusive, diverse and fair workplace, contact Dr. Kellie Kirksey by visiting her website.

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