Supporting staff in times of crisis

Sean Burpoe, Harrison Siegel, and Annie Jensen. June 23, 2020

This blog is part of a series to share research and analysis prepared for the Rapid Response Network (RRN). The RRN is an initiative of the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) and Social Finance, providing actionable research to agencies responding to the COVID-19 crisis.


Image for post

There are extra burdens for people delivering front-line behavioral health services during a crisis. These individuals may be experiencing increased trauma and receiving increased information from news outlets, which may result in heightened anxiety and uncertainty. By working with populations at high risk of exposure to COVID-19, workers may be afraid and uncertain about the safety of themselves and their loved ones. These challenges may make it difficult to prioritize one’s own needs.

Leadership from a county behavioral health department in California recognized the challenges that its workers were facing and asked the RRN to summarize best practices and resources for supporting staff.

To help answer this question, MHSOAC and Social Finance spoke with 13 individuals experienced with civilian, military, and medical crisis response, from former Pentagon officials to wildfire and hurricane response managers, to identify themes and gather perspectives on supporting staff delivering behavioral health services to high-risk individuals during challenging times.

Here are five themes that we identified:

  • Keep a close pulse on staff morale. Leaders need to engage with staff directly and solicit feedback often. Meetings should not only serve to provide updates but also offer a safe space for questions and feedback. While leaders should have an open-door policy, one individual we interviewed emphasized that this is not enough. Leaders need to “get out of [their] office and talk to people — management by walking around is more important now than ever.” Numerous individuals also recommended the use of peer-support groups. Employees may not always feel comfortable talking to leadership but they will probably relate more closely with their peers.
  • Making physical safety the first priority will alleviate stress. Organizations must supply the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to keep their workers safe and encourage workers to care for themselves, particularly if they feel sick. Leadership should emphasize that there is no pressure to return to work if they are sick and can take sick days to care for themselves or family members.

By working with populations at high-risk of exposure to COVID-19, workers may be afraid and uncertain about the safety of themselves and their loved ones.

  • Establish a plan early — and communicate it often. Before employees return to their physical workplace, create new guidelines for social distancing in the office and understand how employees are commuting to work. Allow staff to participate in this process by creating a crisis response team that other staff members can contact with questions, inputs, or suggestions.
  • Use flexibility as a tool to reduce common stressors. Organizations can stagger employee hours to ensure social distancing and implement policies for reasonable accommodations and time off. If employees use public transport, establish flexible work schedules to help staff avoid busier commute times.
  • Collaborate with partners. Work with local public health counterparts to draft guidelines for the workplace, as they will have the most-up-to date information on local policies. Documentation for other crises, e.g., wildfires and earthquakes, can be applied during COVID-19 if a clear protocol is not available.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to leaders as they try to support their staff. Organizations can utilize online resources to build and maintain healthy and effective workplaces and prioritize their workers’ mental health. Employees may benefit from online peer support groups to confidentially discuss workplace issues or meditation apps to manage stress. Some options include:

  • Welcoa: a collection of training tools for employers to change organizational culture, increase engagement, and improve the lives of their employees.
  • Mindshare partners: provides training and advising services that raise awareness regarding employee mental health and drive changes.
  • Headspace: application that provides mediation and mental health resources for individuals, with an emphasis on sleep, stress and anxiety, and movement and healthy living.
  • Stanford early life stress and resilience program (ELSRP): During COVID-19, the ELSRP is promoting mental health wellness with resources, links to information relevant to individuals and families, and daily live mindfulness and meditation sessions.

Delivering critical services to vulnerable individuals is challenging in the best of times. With an added layer of stress due to COVID-19, organizational leadership can support the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of their staff, allowing them to perform their work in a safe way.


We are grateful for the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the invaluable in-kind support from GLG, which supports the RRN through access to their expert network, and the partnership of Jim Mayer and Anna Naify from MHSOAC.