Managing anxiety related to SARS

Guidelines for managers to help employees cope with the fear surrounding SARS
By Michel Arsenault and Gabor Gellert
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 05/02/2003

I

n light of the current health alert related to SARS, some people are feeling uncertain, anxious and worried about this unknown illness.

The increased media attention about SARS is contributing to some feeling unsettled about this situation.

Some employees may experience a range of reactions to the increasing focus about society’s collective health. Some people may become distracted, anxious, less productive in their day-to-day functioning. These feelings are all perfectly normal and understandable. Employees' reactions also depend on their current life stressors, such as having a family member dealing with an illness.

During this time, it is imperative for managers to stay as calm as possible. Managers should be sending messages to staff to try to not overeact and reminding them that health officials are actively working to contain this situation.

At this point the risk is extremely low for most people but employees may still have questions and concerns.

How to spot signs that an employee may be anxious

Typically, people experiencing anxiety do not openly communicate their fears and anxieties. Often, the only observable signs may be behaviours such as:

•Increased absenteeism

•Fear of travelling, mixing with crowds

•Anxiety in the presence of persons who may have come in contact with the disease

•Difficulty concentrating, attending to tasks, easily distracted

•Uncharacteristic decline or change in performance

•Unusual irritation and agitation

•Preoccupation with the news dealing with current health issues

•Excessive focus on physical health

•Overindulgence in conversations related to SARS

•Unusually high expectations directed at managers or the union to answer questions and ensure employee safety

How managers can support employees

To support employees, it will be helpful to:

•Acknowledge employees' concerns in a respectful, empathic and non-intrusive manner.

•Recognize and acknowledge, in a non-judgemental way, that employees may have different emotions, attitudes and opinions related to this situation.

•Remind employees they each have a very unique and resourceful way of coping with stressful events and to continue to draw on their natural resilience.

•Urge employees to reach out to people they feel close to.

•Inform staff experiencing anxiety that these feelings may vary from day to day and may be different than the feelings and thoughts of those around them.

•Prompt employees to focus their attention on health-related matters over which they have influence.

•Demonstrate that you are as concerned about your employees as you are about work objectives.

•Address changes in performance in a timely, clear manner while conveying understanding of possible anxiety.

•Provide factual information regarding dedicated resources to address specific health concerns related to SARS.

Resources and support for employees

•Provide information on EAP and other community resources that are available to employees and family members (see telephone numbers below.)

•Request debriefing to help employees deal with the immediate impact of a specific critical incident and organizational stress situations

Key considerations for managers

•Be visible and manage employee anxiety and fear by walking around, listening, asking questions and being seen as delivering solutions. Effectiveness is increased if leaders receive information and coaching on how to manage affected employees.

•Communicate frequently. Should there be an incident directly affecting your organization, conduct regular and daily communication. This should ideally occur at the same time each day and contain practical and accurate information for employees.

•Provide employees with clear information regarding internal health and safety support. Also, distribute the phone numbers of health support lines and the EAP.

•Remember the best way to help your employees is to take good care of yourself. Seek personal and professional support, if you need it, to help you manage your own stress.

Michel Arsenault is director, global trauma services at FGI, an Toronto-based EAP consulting firm. For more information contact marsenault@fgiworld.com. Gabor Gellert is regional manager, trauma services at FGI. For more information contact ggellert@fgiworld.com.

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