How do you speak to staff in a pandemic that is affecting lives and livelihoods? Especially when, several weeks into the health crisis, none of us still know how long it will last

Research has consistently found one thing for certain – empathy is crucial when the stakes are high. In fact, showing you care accounts for 50% of the trust you will build with your audience in a crisis. Your competency, openness and commitment to the problem are the other factors that build trust.

Risk communication researcher Vincent Corvello puts it this way: people who are upset “don’t care what you know until they know that you care”.

Now that we are living through a pandemic, these findings are a reliable guide for organisations. Experienced crisis managers and researchers recommend the approaches outlined below.

Own your feelings, not others’

When trying to show empathy, a common mistake is telling someone: “I know how you feel.” Why? Because it’s their pain, not yours.  Researcher Peter Sandman (2010) puts it this way: “People are often very proprietary about their pain”. Equally upsetting is seeming oblivious to another’s concerns. Never deny, trivialise or tell someone they are overreacting. Chances are, you don’t know their circumstances well enough to make that call. In a pandemic, they could be worried about being hospitalised with dependent children at home. Or they could have health conditions that would put them at risk of death. Whatever their reasons for concern, they are entitled to hold them. You will alienate and aggravate people if you undermine their legitimate right to feel upset at this time.

Avoid downplaying the risk

Two of the worst things you can say in a health crisis are: “There is no cause for alarm” or “We have the situation fully under control”. Many organisations jump straight to reassurance. This is a mistake. Empty reassurance is a big trust-breaker. It makes people doubt that you understand the situation, at best, but more likely that you are hiding the true horrors from them. Far from being reassured, they will likely think the situation is so bad that you are resorting to false assurances. Neither can you go too far the other way and dump the full tragedy on them. Instead, acknowledge the gravity of events, then tell people what you are doing to protect their health and safety at work, what they can do to protect themselves and how much you hope things will improve if we all pull together.

Share your genuine concern

Even the most mentally healthy people feel anxious in a pandemic. Our fear responses will kick in now to alert us that we need to get away from danger. For that reason, it’s OK to share your genuine concern. Admit that you are struggling to process the enormity of this pandemic. If you are genuinely moved by the situation, you won’t look “unprofessional” by saying so. Think of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern after the Christchurch massacre. She shared her grief openly with survivors at the same time as she took action to protect the public from further gun violence. Her empathy gave her the authority to enact strong new gun laws, because the way she communicated at the height of the crisis strengthened public trust in her leadership.

Speak now, speak often

In any crisis, the more communication the better. Now is the time to issue regular updates to staff if you haven’t already – and keep them going until the effects of the pandemic are over. Why? Because uncertainty loves a vacuum – to be filled with myths, gossip and fake news. When discussing stressful topics, face-to-face communication is best. If your staff are working from home or you’re restricting in-person meetings, use electronic platforms that allow staff to see your face. A filmed video message is the next best option.

Taking these steps should help organisations communicate better during the coronavirus outbreak. Remember to check in with yourself and others regularly to ensure the usual stress of a pandemic does not escalate into something more serious. Provide your staff with tools to help them, through your EAP service or available helplines such as Lifeline.

Our iHelp digital tool can connect you and your staff to mental health support on the Sunshine Coast and we’ve also published a list of Members who are offering support by phone, video, Telehealth and online.


Further Reading


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Louise Pemble is an experienced communications professional who has dedicated her career to promoting community wellbeing, including in health charities, federal and local government and as a health journalist. She holds a Master of Strategic Communication which included a thesis on crisis communication in the health sector.