The COVID-19 virus, more commonly known as the coronavirus, is impacting every single aspect of our lives. Each day we are told something new: 

“Stay inside.”

“Restaurants, bars, stores, beaches are all closed.”

“Your job and your business are temporarily or permanently gone.” 

“Workers must now work virtually.”

“Your kids must stay home, and parents must figure out how to access learning and childcare.”

We are all just waiting to see what part of our lives will be disrupted next. We are living through a pandemic. We are all living in uncertainty. We are experiencing trauma. Naturally, panic and anxiety have begun to spike. 

But what about those individuals who already battle anxiety every day?  What about those individuals who have a history of mental illness?

Those with current mental illnesses have even more to worry about as many therapy offices shut their doors and they scramble to ensure they have the appropriate prescriptions at the ready. 

During times of trauma, mental illness symptoms often exacerbate. Those who are living with these illnesses might experience even stronger symptoms , while those who have a predisposition towards mental illness might begin to develop symptoms for the first time. Emotional and physical responses might heighten to unmanageable levels. Some of these symptoms might include an inability to concentrate, obsessive tendencies (such as checking the news frequently), over-working/inability to relax, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and many more. 

Needless to say, this can all sound a bit frightening and worrisome for individuals who need to continue functioning, while they are suffering with extreme side effects of their illness. Employers – what can you do to help both those with mental illness and those whose mental health is simply struggling during this drastic time? 

  1. Reach Out: Let your employees know that you understand these are difficult times. Have managers and team leaders connect directly with their team members to check-in and see how everyone is doing. Use your virtual platforms to specifically invite team members to virtual lunch, coffee or after-work happy hour! 
  2. Provide Resources: Remind your employees of their benefits. If they have sick leave, remind them that they can use this for mental illness as well. If your health insurance provider has telemedicine for mental health – let them know how they can access this! Provide a list of external resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255), the SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-622-4357), and the CDC. Having something or someone to turn to can make all the difference. 
  3. Provide Flexibility: Be understanding. Allow your team members time to get their affairs in order and time to step back when things get too overwhelming. 
  4. Avoid Potential Triggers: Ensure that your communications around the evolving coronavirus are transparent and consistent. Conflicting or cluttered communications without straight answers can cause more confusion and panic. 
  5. Educate Your Team: While operations or priorities might be shifting during this time, you must continue to push diversity and inclusion as a vital, ongoing imperative for your business. Forbes offers some insights on how you can still have engaging diversity and inclusion trainings virtually. Informing your team specifically how stress and trauma can affect those with mental illness will allow for more understanding and a stronger, more inclusive environment.  
  6. Team Up with External Organizations Dedicated to Promoting Mental Health: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the JED Foundation and Rethink Mental Illness are all great organizations that support those with mental illnesses. They will focus on improving and protecting mental health during this time. 

While the coronavirus is a physical illness, it has the potential to affect mental health greatly both now and in the future. During this chaotic time, organizations have the opportunity to prioritize the humanity and safety of the most vulnerable populations. The way your organization responds to this crisis will define how your employees and customers see you. Focus on your people and as always support diverse, inclusive environments. We will get through this together. 

About the Author


Elana Powell is a Business Development Programmer for the National Diversity Council. In this role, Elana works with organizations across industry to facilitate courageous conversations around many difficult diversity and inclusion topics. Outside of work, Elana loves strength training, delicious food, and her dog, Peanut.

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