As a medical doctor, with a degree in psychology and a PhD in immunology I have been fascinated to see the global psychological response to the immune challenge to our health that accompanies the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most organisations have recognised their legal and moral responsibility towards their employees. Most have directed employees towards practical advice – hopefully from reputable sources, such as those provided by the NHS and WHO. That practical advice has focused on things like hand washing, social distancing and making plans to work from home if you’re able. But given the profound interaction between a human being’s psychology and immunology such guidance is not enough. In fact, organisations should do much more if they care seriously for their employees.
The thing that impairs human immunity more than anything else is the stress hormone cortisol. And what determines the level of cortisol we have flowing around our body is the level of fear and anxiety we experience. The more we panic the worse our immune system becomes and the more likely we are to become infected if we are exposed to the virus. In addition, how well we cope with the virus if we do become infected is also significantly influenced by our cortisol levels. The more anxious we feel the more likely the virus will replicate and the more likely we could experience complications such as pneumonia, which is the thing that is killing people. Furthermore, the more anxious we are the more likely the virus will linger and replicate in our bodies and this may actually make us more contagious to others.
So responsible organisations need to not only offer practical guidance they need to offer emotional guidance too. They have a responsibility not to fuel the panic and anxiety. In fact, reducing fear and anxiety for employees must be a top priority for all organisations.
Our employees are being bombarded by scary stories on mainstream and social media. Their anxieties are being fed by this stream of news, rumour and speculation. While there is little control organisations can exert over the news reaching their employees from outside, they should take care not to amplify employee fears in their own internal communications.
The right information helps reduce anxieties, and good internal communication is a start when it comes to addressing this emotional aspect of the current pandemic but, as I’ve already said, practical guidance only goes so far. In fact, some of the practical advice might even directly increase fears and anxieties. Where they are able, many employees are being encouraged to work from home. They might also be asked to self-isolate if they have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. However, social distancing, while absolutely necessary from a physical health perspective can affect our mental health too. It can create feelings of isolation which can increase anxiety levels. Without those social support networks in your office, you may feel less able to deal with the anxieties you face.
All of this means, that the best advice I can offer organisations right now to help them reduce the fear and anxieties of their employees is for them to help their workforce to emotionally self-regulate. In other words, to help them move away from a state of fear and anxiety towards a state of resolve. Effectively embrace the classically British mantra “keep calm and carry on”. Panic will not help you. It will reduce your immunity and make you more likely to make the wrong choices for you situation.
Effective emotional regulation starts with stabilising your breathing. This means breathing rhythmically and evenly through the heart area. Not deep breathing and not abdominal breathing. Such a breathing pattern stabilises your biology. Then try and deliberately experience a state of optimism or resolve or patience. Really try and feel this emotion in your body rather than just thinking it. Positive thinking won’t cut it. Positive feeling will increase the levels of the vitality hormone DHEA in your system. DHEA is the body’s main antidote to cortisol.
Enabling employees to become masters of their own emotional state is critical to reducing fear and anxiety. It’s clearly very relevant to the current pandemic crisis and it’s my strongest piece of advice for organisations, but it’s something that will soon be seen as central to any effective employee wellbeing programme.