The statistics are dizzying: one hundred thousand dead, millions unemployed, 30 percent of America’s economy wiped out. Almost all of us are grieving. Even if we haven’t lost a loved one, we’ve seen the suffering from death, illness, job loss, debt, and even hunger. Isolation, loneliness, and a lack of meaningful work and the financial security that comes with it can leave people open to depression, addiction, and abusive behaviors. Job loss particularly can result in low self-esteem, hopelessness, and despair. A recent Kaiser Foundation poll showed almost half of those furloughed or laid off have experienced some mental health consequences, and 21 percent reported a major problem with depression and/or anxiety.
These are the very people small business owners and managers are hoping will return to work in a few weeks, rested, relaxed, and ready to dive in and bring the business back to life. What can employers do? Prozac in the water? Free guinea pigs for all?
The good news is that there is one simple, cheap, and very effective remedy for depression and anxiety, and, unlike hand sanitizer and other things we suddenly need oceans of, we don’t even have to leave the house to get some: connection. A listening ear. A shared laugh. A kind word.
How do we do keep the sense of community alive in our employees, and help keep them safe from the mental health effects of COVID-19, when our workplace is locked tight and we haven’t seen each other in weeks? When you interact with people daily, you’ve got a rhythm. You share a funny cartoon, you talk about the latest blockbuster movie. If someone seems down, you can take them aside for a word. But now—it’s awkward. For one thing, there is no blockbuster movie.
But it’s worth taking a step outside the comfort zone, if only to break those anxieties that form in isolation. Better an awkward attempt at connection than letting your colleagues feel alone.
Harvard Business Review recommends that larger companies designate “a single, trusted source—preferably someone in a position of authority”—to communicate regularly about the pandemic and the company’s response. Employees should be able to ask questions and get knowledgeable answers. The communications can offer guidance on COVID policies, filing for unemployment, or even job postings for temporary work, as well as updates on furlough decision-making.
In a smaller business, communications may be less formal but no less important. For example, an email or public announcement such as “Hey all. Just a note to remind you your jobs are still there and that we’ll be reopening the minute we’re allowed to. According to the governor’s timetable, that may be as soon as next month. This has been a hard time for everyone, and I’d like to help in any way I can. Please feel free to ask for information or assistance. Would each of you take a minute to tell me how your families are doing?”
Now you’ve set up two-way communication, and you can keep it going. Most importantly, you’ve shown them you care. Even if you don’t have all the answers, transparency makes for trust.
If you can do more, go ahead. One small business established a no-interest loan program for its forty employees. Only a few took advantage of this, but it helped everyone understand that the company was honestly concerned. When Honeywell furloughed employees during the 2008 recession, CEO Dave Cote and other upper management employees cut their own salaries in solidarity with the workforce. When the recession ended, Honeywell posted stock returns almost three times as high as their closest competitors. Their employees had tangible signs they were valued, and they were less likely to slip into depression and more likely to return to work with goodwill and energy.
“You’ve been furloughed, not forgotten” is the message, and if you can keep that message in workers’ minds over the course of the furlough, reminding them that they are a valued part of your business, the return in loyalty and commitment can be immense.
Set against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, small gestures can seem worthless. In fact, human connection is more potent than ever during this time. Right now, employers have an almost magical power to enhance connection, boost worker morale, and make it more likely that when furloughs end, businesses and the nation will succeed in getting back to work and regaining their economic strength.
 Nirmita Panchal, et al., “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” KFF, April 21, 2020, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/.
 Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta, “How to Make Furloughs More Humane,” Harvard Business Review, April 24, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-to-make-furloughs-more-humane.
 Sucher and Gupta, “How to Make Furloughs More Humane.”
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