Combat COVID-Brain by Promoting Self-Care

Combat COVID-Brain by Promoting Self-Care

By Jim Fickess | WorldatWork

(This is the first in a two-part series about combating COVID-19 employee burnout. Next week, we will examine how the intensified reliance on four time-honored HR management tools – communication, training, leadership and reliance on front-line managers — can bolster your employees’ and organization’s well-being during the pandemic.)

Are you finding yourself struggling to come close to the exhilarating efficiency you enjoyed when the COVID-19 pandemic sent us home to work several months ago? And, are you seeing the productivity of your remote organization tailing off as well?

You are not alone. A survey by SellCell, a comparison site for cellphones, found that 80% of the 2,000 United States workers it surveyed admit to slacking off. (Social media is the biggest distractor at 61% while 43% say they’ve watched porn on company time.)

No matter your distractions, you and your co-workers could be battling a condition recently identified by neuroscientists affiliated with INSEAD, an international graduate business school. Without going too deeply into neuroscience (as if I could), the pandemic has de-compartmentalized our lives — throwing once-separate activities such as work and home life into the same swirling abyss. We try to think our way through it, but our brains are swamped with ambiguous signals, undercutting our decision-making abilities. And, since this pandemic is unprecedented, our long-term memory is no help, pushing us to look outward for guidance.

That faulty analytical thinking, paired with external sensitivity, creates what the INSEAD neuroscientists have termed “COVID-19 brain,” a fragile, frazzled state that keeps our thoughts on edge and unfocused.

What can you as an HR practitioner or manager do to re-energize you and your team’s remote efforts as this pandemic escalates in most states? Several experts interviewed by Workspan Daily agreed that addressing employee well-being is the first, vital step and the focus of any assistance efforts, such as webinars and training.

“During these extraordinary times, we have to take care of both our physical and emotional well-being if we are going to be effective in how we care for our clients,” said Mike Weiner, EY Assist Leader, Ernst & Young LLP (EY).

Many of those recommendations fall into a practice that is termed “extreme self-care” by Cindy Persico, vice president of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) division of Health Advocate. (See Practicing Extreme Self-Care.)

“We are overwhelmed with quarantine fatigue,” said Persico, who is a certified EAP professional and mental-health counselor. “We are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions and we need to help people understand that it is normal. Let people know their emotions are typical and they are not alone.”

“It’s time to focus on self-care,” agreed Bernie Dyme, president and CEO of Perspectives Ltd., a national employee-assistance services provider. “Let employees know we are all facing stress. Practice empathy. Accept personal views, which are based on their experience. Training around self-care and mental health should be baked into the culture.

“It is time to destigmatize mental health.”

Persico suggested a couple of ways to avoid any lingering mental-health stigma when offering employee assistance. Use the term “coaching” instead of “counseling.” When publicizing an upcoming event, such as a webinar on combatting depression, frame it as “how to help a friend who may be depressed.”

Avoid a “peanut-butter approach,” said Jill Havely, Managing Director, Talent & Rewards and Midwest Region Leader – Talent Line of Business, Willis Towers Watson. “We need to be preparing people leaders for different needs of employees and how to address those needs, taking a holistic view of well-being — financial, physical, social and emotional.”

No matter the employee and their unique needs, we all need to understand the organization’s mission and vision for the future, Havely said. “Help them know what they are working toward. Knowing your role is energizing. If we feel we have something to look forward to, it’s motivating, energizing and inspiring.”

Encourage people to take time off. Many studies show that people are working harder and longer from home than they did in the office. “People working virtually feel like they have to constantly be on,” said Havely, adding that even a dreaded commute can give one some quiet time to themselves.

That includes encouraging people to take PTO, said Deirdre Macbeth, a WorldatWork content director. “There has to be a line between personal and business life.” When following stay-at-home guidelines, there is an inclination not to use time off, she observed.

As COVID-19 had a significant impact on their employees, EY extended an opportunity for  people to take a partially subsidized two or three month leave this summer. This option was made available to help their people recharge, take care of themselves or their family this summer without impact to their job or career, Weiner said.

Working from home can be lonely, especially if you live alone. (A record 28% of U.S. households are inhabited by single adults, according to the Census Bureau.)

So, it’s important to stay in touch, the experts agree. Tom Gimble, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a national staffing business, said in a recent WorldatWork Expert Insights webinar, that he randomly calls a few employees each day to see how they are doing.

The experts also encourage virtual gatherings, such as lunches and happy hours. And, such events can foster another important tool in the COVID-19-coping tool kit: humor, said Perspectives’ Dyme.

“You have to know how to have a good time – anything that can lead to fun,” he said. Recently, the Chicago-based company sent terrariums to each of its 55 employees. It was followed by a Zoom session that covered the tending of the glass-enclosed gardens.

“There was a lot of kidding going on, mostly about how I couldn’t do it,” said Dyme with a hearty laugh.

“I’ve had people tell me that they look up at their terrarium in their window and it brings a smile to their face.”


  • Have a schedule, even if it is flexible. Plug in times for yourself, with alarms. Treat it like it’s a meeting.
  • Take breaks when working. Understand that even one-minute activity, such as walking around the house, can reduce stress.
  • Get outside. Exercise is important. Do an activity you enjoy.
  • Ask for help with your duties. Be creative about who can help you, whether it’s a spreadsheet or unloading a dishwasher. Lots of time, this problem is self-imposed by thinking that “Nobody can do that spreadsheet as well as me.”

Reach out to friends for support.

  • Be mindful of what you consume. Comfort food can help, but not in excess.
  • Balance out the bad news. Limit your news consumption to 30 minutes a day. Check out “good news” websites.
  • Try some computer apps designed to calm the mind.
  • Draw on faith, meditation and mindfulness. Exercise gratitude. Focus on what’s going well in your life.
  • Share best ideas. Give employees a platform to share coping tips with colleagues. For example, Ernst & Young adds employee-recommended information, such a caregiver tips, to its COVID-19-dedicated website, Weiner said.

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