How To Talk To Employees During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Texas A&M crisis communication expert W. Timothy Coombs says proper communication and leadership from employers can help reduce employee anxiety.
By Alix Poth, Texas A&M University College of Liberal Arts April 6, 2020

Closeup shot of an man using a credit card and laptop at home
Wiith employees adjusting to working during a pandemic, many at home, proper communication from employers can help reduce anxiety.

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As three in four Americans are now working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of employees around the nation are adjusting to working from home. This shift is unprecedented and brings many changes and transitions — including navigating new ways of communication among coworkers and teams.

W. Timothy Coombs, professor in the Texas A&M University Department of Communication, is a leading expert in crisis communication. The application of Coombs’ research during disasters has previously been proven helpful to communicators who now may faced with responding to COVID-19.

“Past research during disasters and terror attacks show that communicating with employees can reduce their anxiety,” Coombs said. “However, it cannot be just any communication, but messages that will resonate with and help them to cope with the situation. The first concern is that anxiety will be the dominant emotion due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation.”

In times of crisis, uncertainty increases anxiety, and anxiety shapes communication as a result. This is true in the workplace as well. Coombs offers three suggestions to mitigate the anxiety people are experiencing and tailor messages so they are effective and well-received.

Keep communication simple and easy to understand

“Stress from anxiety reduces comprehension, and therefore long, complicated messages add to anxiety and are likely to be ignored,” Coombs said. “Anxiety reduces a person’s ability to process information.”

He recommends not contributing to the overload people may be experiencing.

Empathy helps people to cope and relate to the message

The focus of the message needs to be on the employee, not the organization, Coombs said.

“Keep all organization-specific information near the end of the messages so that employees will not ignore the entire message,” he said. “Remember, just because management thinks information is important does not mean employees will feel the same way.”

Target the message

It is important to specify what types of employees will find the information useful.

“Especially for COVID-19, there is a big difference between what essential and non-essential employees find relevant,” Coombs said. “Be sure to identify in the message who is the primary target.  Some employees, not all, will want all possible information but help employees to identify the messages most relevant to them.”

How communication helps to reduce anxiety for employees

“Keep employees informed about what you are doing, because they want to know how it affects them,” Coombs said. “Communication with employees during such times does decrease their anxiety; however, too much communication, especially if it is general and complicated, does not help that much.”

Therefore, the key is to create “critical messages” that are curated for your specific audience and their current needs. Critical messages include:

  • What you are doing to protect them
  • How the situation affects their job, pay and benefits
  • What to do if they are sick or if they notice a sick co-worker (especially among essential workers)
  • How governmental decisions affect organizational operations and what that means for different groups of employees

Finally, it can be beneficial to send employees links or content that are not specifically COVID-19 related, but can still them and their families to cope, Coombs said. This could include links to museums offering virtual tours, zoos and parks offering live feeds of animals, or other cultural institutions offering uplifting content.

“Employees can only take so many reassuring messages from management,” Coombs said. “They need some options that they can control for dealing with the situation.”

This article by Alix Poth originally appeared on the College of Liberal Arts website.

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