Having provided mental health support to employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that many people are experiencing some of the same emotional reactions to their circumstances as they might during bereavement. We have witnessed employees at various stages of denial, anger, bargaining depression and acceptance, as set out in Kubler-Ross’s Grief cycle, a theory widely accepted by therapists. Employers that recognise this is what employees are going through, are better positioned to know how to support their staff – especially as the coronavirus crisis is more prolonged than most people expected.

It’s been called the ‘new norm’ but if we’re honest, there’s very little that’s normal about the world we’re currently living in, and that is putting a huge strain on many employees. People are experiencing feelings similar to grief: mourning the life they once had, the family they can’t see, the social lives they miss, the adventures and holidays they can’t plan. Add to this the strain of lockdown on family life, and adapting to a new way of working, and it’s clear to see why many people are experiencing some of the same emotions as they do when coping with a significant loss.

How these five stages manifest themselves

These five stages are not a straightforward route-map to dealing with the emotions caused by COVID-19 and not everyone will necessarily journey through each one in order. However, knowing that these feelings are normal can be a relief and help some people to cope better.

As restrictions change, locally and nationally as well as a very clear message the virus will continue to restrict our lives for many months if not years, this can cause a return to previous emotions to be worked through again.

Professional support required for more extreme emotional reactions

Most employees will arrive at the acceptance stage on their own but for some, COVID-19 will have triggered a more intense emotional reaction. Where a mental health issue is suspected, employers should always refer employees on to specialist mental health support, as early intervention is key in tackling anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. This support is often available as a free value-add within group protection policies as well as via trade unions, affinity groups and membership organisations.

Many employees feel a loss of control, status and motivation by not being in a normal working routine in the workplace. This, combined with a reduction in social interaction, and less of a sense of a working community, can leave some people unable to cope, which can then spiral into mental health issues if not kept in check.

By being aware that employees could be grieving for a pre-COVID-19 world, and by having an understanding that this can be a catalyst for a range of emotions, employers are better equipped to support staff during these difficult times.


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