How to help employees during trying times  

company culture

If the frightening ramifications of the growing coronavirus crisis are making it hard for you to focus on the work you’re doing remotely, interrupting your sleep patterns and giving you the blues, you’re not alone.

A local sociologist and business consultant, Jeanne Hurlbert, says such symptoms of a depressive mood—which is different from clinical depression—are common during disasters, and she says that if you’re feeling that way, so are others in your organization.

Hurlbert—who retired from the sociology department at LSU after 20 years and served on a statewide task force that studied interagency performance after Hurricane Katrina—says as overwhelming as the current situation seems, there are concrete things businesses and organizations can do during this time to create strong support systems and networks among their team members that will help elevate their moods and help them weather the current challenges.

“It’s critically important to keep everyone engaged and connected, to do everything you can to get the support you need and help your team get the support they need, particularly given that most folks are working remotely right now,” says Hurlbert, whose recommendations are based on research she and others did after Katrina. “And you will deliver immense value to your clients if you check in to be sure they’re getting the support that they need.”

In recent days, Hurlbert has been delivering webinars to companies and groups around the country that she says are hungry for the information. Among the tips she shares:

Keep your team connected to you and to each other. Working at home can prove challenging under the best of circumstances. Forming virtual work teams can help combat those challenges. Teams can connect by phone or, ideally, through video conferencing, once or twice a day, which can help increase productivity and allow them to provide instrumental support to each other.

Be deliberate in forming teams. Sociologists know well that norms about productivity emerge in work groups. If you form a virtual group, make sure to include at least one “spark plug” who will add positive energy and productivity. It’s probably good to also include someone who is good at keeping a cool head in a crisis.

Encourage your employees to reach out for support. The expressive or emotional social support that helps us get through tough times doesn’t tend to come from acquaintances but from what researchers call “strong ties” to close friends and relatives. Keep reaching out to your team to see how they’re doing and encourage them to reach out to their close friends and relatives, by phone, Facetime or video conferencing. Reaching out will help your employees maintain their social ties and cope with stress.

Structure work to decrease stress as much as possible. One of the key indicators of work stress that researchers use is having too much to do in the time available. As your teams work remotely, they’re likely struggling to balance family demands, with children learning at home; to complete routine tasks, as even grocery shopping has become complex; and to attend to the important job of keeping their environments sanitized. Providing structures during the day that acknowledge their competing demands can help reduce stress.

Tips to keep your clients engaged:

• Don’t assume you know what they need right now; ask them
• Now is a great time to survey them, to understand what they see as their biggest priorities and challenges, but do so carefully and properly. Remember people feel fragile right now.
• Many people felt disconnected before this event, as technology and social media have often undermined social connections. This crisis exacerbated that problem. They crave connection and you can provide that.

“New Orleans came back after Hurricane Katrina,” Hurlbert says. “We will, too. What your clients and your team will remember, years after this is over, is that you served them and that you cared.”

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