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 Communication expert explains how to talk to employees during crisis 

Crisis communication expert Timothy Coombs provides insight into how to best communicate with employees to reduce further anxiety during a pandemic. 

By Alix Poth ’18

As the New York Times reports that three in four Americans are now working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of employees around the nation are adjusting to working from home. This shift is unprecedented and brings many changes and transitions — including navigating new ways of communication among coworkers and teams.

W. Timothy Coombs, professor in the Department of Communication and lead expert in crisis communication, provides insight into the way anxiety shapes communication, and how proper communication from leadership can reduce further anxiety. 

Communicators respond to a global health pandemic the same way they would respond to other crisis situations. The application of Coombs’ research during other disasters has proven helpful to communicators now faced with the challenge of responding to COVID-19.

“Past research during disasters and terror attacks show that communicating with employees can reduce their anxiety,” Coombs said. “However, it cannot be just any communication but messages that will resonate with and help them to cope with the situation. The first concern is that anxiety will be the dominant emotion due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation.”

How anxiety shapes communication

In times of crisis, uncertainty increases anxiety, and anxiety resultantly shapes communication. This is true in the workplace as well. Coombs offers three suggestions to mitigate the anxiety people are experiencing, and to tailor messages so they are effective and well-received. 

  1. Keep communication simple and easy to understand.  

“Stress from anxiety reduces comprehension, and therefore long, complicated messages add to anxiety and are likely to be ignored,” Coombs said. “Anxiety reduces a person’s ability to process information.” He recommends not contributing to the overload people may be experiencing.

  1. Empathy helps people to cope and relate to the message.  

The focus on the message needs to be on the employee, not the organization, Coombs said. “Keep all organization-specific information near the end of the messages so that employees will not ignore the entire message.  Remember, just because management thinks information is important does not mean employees will feel the same way.”

  1. Target the message.  

It is important to specify what types of employees will find the information useful.  “Especially for COVID-19, there is a big difference between what essential and non-essential employees find relevant,” Coombs said. “Be sure to identify in the message who is the primary target.  Some employees, not all, will want all possible information but help employees to identify the messages most relevant to them.”

How communication helps to reduce anxiety for employees

“Keep employees informed about what you are doing because they want to know how it affects them,” Coombs said. “Communication with employees during such times does decrease their anxiety; however, too much communication, especially if it is general and complicated, does not help that much.”

Therefore, the key is to create “critical messages” that are curated for your specific audience and their current needs. Critical messages include:

  1. What you are doing to protect them,
  2. How the situation affects their job, pay, and benefits,
  3. What to do if they are sick or if they notice a sick co-worker (especially among essential workers),
  4. How governmental decisions affect organization operations and what that means for different groups of employees.

Finally, it can be beneficial to send employees links or content that are not specifically COVID-19 related, but can still assist people and their families to cope, Coombs said. This could include links to museums offering virtual tours, zoos and parks offering live feeds of animals, or other cultural institutions offering uplifting content. 

“Employees can only take so many reassuring messages from management,” Coombs said. “They need some options that they can control for dealing with the situation.” 


Read more about COVID-19 from Texas A&M College of Liberal Arts experts here