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Laurent Taymans

Regional Medical Director, International SOS

Read more about Laurent Taymans

How to help employees take care of their own wellbeing during a crisis


News about the coronavirus is on every news channel and media communication every day. We see a daily tally of countries affected and fatalities incurred.

As a result, your employees will probably have a heightened awareness of the outbreak and the risks that they may be exposed to during their travel, which may be causing them to feel concerned and fearful.

To help your workforce cope during the crisis, we have compiled eight evidence-based suggestions for you and your employees to consider. 

Ironically, the time when we most need to look after ourselves, is often the time when we are least likely to.

1. Research and learn

Do as much research as you can about the risks, the resources available to you (such as medical support if you need it) and your movements. Consider which might be your touchpoints for risk and what you could do to prepare for this. Having procedural knowledge has been shown to be a strong protective factor against ill-health. Although simple advice, the better prepared you are, the better able you will be to face any situation that arises. 

2. Accept your worries

Having an emotional reaction (be that anxiety, fear of contagion, anger or frustration) is absolutely normal and is a sign that our body’s natural protective mechanisms have been triggered. It is also beneficial; research has shown that having a moderate level of anxiety means that you are more likely to take precautions such as engage in health-seeking behaviours (like washing hands) than those who are not concerned.

Further, noticing these feelings and accepting that they are normal – rather than attempting to minimise them or deny them – has been shown to make those feelings less prominent in our minds.

3. Look after yourself

Ironically, the time when we most need to look after ourselves, is often the time when we are least likely to. How many of us cope with stress by drinking more than we would usually, or by eating unhealthy food such as chocolate to comfort ourselves?

But by looking after yourself and engaging in health-promoting behaviours (such as getting good sleep, eating a balanced diet and exercising), you will be protecting yourself both physically and psychologically from the coronavirus (both the threat of it and the virus itself).

4. Consider the information you receive

We are bombarded in our daily technology-filled lives with more and more information and it is hard to get away from it. Much of the reporting around the coronavirus is poor quality and factually inaccurate – feeding feelings of mass hysteria and paranoia.

Both a lack of information and poor quality information has been shown to increase irrational thinking. Reflect upon how you are receiving your information around the coronavirus (for instance from the media and from friends and family). How credible is the source? Is the information rational? Is it factually accurate? Could it be heightening your feelings of concern at the moment?

Try and challenge the information you receive by questioning how rational and free from bias it is. You may find it useful to restrict your input to sources of information or consciously seek out information only from trusted outlets and bodies.

5. Focus on what you can control

Studies from previous virus outbreaks (such as SARS) showed that people tend to feel that these threats are less controllable than threats from other stressors. When we feel that a threat is uncontrollable (i.e. that we can do nothing about it), we are also less likely to engage in problem solving or respond flexibly to new situations – in other words, to be able to protect ourselves when and if we need to. Recognising what we are in control of is therefore really important.

Take a moment to think about what you can and cannot control about the threat of the coronavirus. You may find that you are taking lots of your time and energy worrying about things you can’t control – rather than taking actions you can. Remind yourself to focus your efforts and thoughts on what you can do to control the threat and protect yourself.

Those people who, when under threat, are able to consider how others are thinking and feeling around the threat, are more likely to engage in productive health behaviours

6. Think about prevention, not avoidance

When we feel under threat, we engage coping responses. Research has shown that for this type of threat, three responses are most common:

a) Wishful thinking: where we just hope the whole thing will go away

b) Support seeking: where we rely on others for instrumental or emotional support

c) Empathetic responding: where we cope by considering the impact on others

The problem is that not all these responses are as useful as the other. 

If you are a person that tends to think ‘that it will all blow over’, you are also more likely to use behaviours like avoiding people and public places, but at the same time are less likely to engage in health-promoting behaviours (like hand washing). Relying on others to cope is also often unhelpful particularly if those people are as worried as you.

The most effective coping response is the empathetic one. Those people who, when under threat, are able to consider how others are thinking and feeling around the threat, are more likely to engage in productive health behaviours – and it is the preventative behaviours (visiting a doctor if you feel unwell, covering your face when sneezing and coughing and handwashing) that contribute much better to the wellbeing of yourself and others than avoiding people and places.

Try to consider the impact that the coronavirus is having on others all over the world; and how your actions can keep both you and others safe and well. 

7. Focus on the present moment

In a threat such as this, we find ourselves worrying about the ‘what ifs?’ and what could happen in the future. This can lead to us feeling overwhelmed and paralysed with concerns that we have no control over.

It is important therefore to try and take a step back and focus on what is happening right here and right now. It might be that you manage this practically by dividing up your day into smaller tasks, and just focusing on each task in turn. Or you may want to try a technique such as mindfulness or meditation to help you. Both have been found to be really beneficial to some by being able to remain in the present moment and dealing with adversity.

Although there are many evidence-based tools to choose from, Headspace is a course of guided meditation sessions and mindfulness training which can be accessed either online or through a mobile app. Headspace is also currently offering a free collection of guided meditations and resources to businesses to offer to their employees.

Another recommended tool with one of the largest libraries of guided meditations is Insight Timer.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you are finding that you are feeling overwhelmed by your fears and are struggling to control them, it is likely that this is affecting both your home and your work life and that you would benefit from some professional support. Rather than trying to deal with this alone, seek the support of a health professional either within your organisation or externally.

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Laurent Taymans

Regional Medical Director, International SOS

Read more from Laurent Taymans
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