The impact of COVID-19 has greatly endangered our lives and livelihoods as we continue to work our way through what seems like a never-ending cycle of uncertainty and confusion surrounding management of the pandemic. As cases of infection and deaths rise, we’re seeing more clearly the complex ways that the pandemic is affecting   employers and their employees.  It’s important for business leaders to understand that research in terror management shows that increased reminders and exposure to mortality can invoke strong feelings of anxiety, which puts employees’ wellbeing at risk. Workplace performance and employees’ sense of wellbeing are deeply connected.  Business leaders can relieve employee anxiety and uncertainty by learning and demonstrating the characteristics of servant leadership.  Let us explain how.

Unexpected Ways The Pandemic Affects Business 

The impact of the pandemic is a business concern and not just because it takes up so much mental space in employees’ minds. Amid such a crisis, researchers inform us that increased exposure to death and the threat of death may not only trigger anxiety but also activates self-protective behaviors that decreases job engagement (Hu, He, & Zhou, 2020). With millions of Americans working from home and already experiencing increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety, work performance is at high risk of being negatively affected by this exposure to death. Decreased work performance can be seen as a form of withdrawal caused by a decrease in devotion to work physically, emotionally and cognitively. This may lead to lower productivity, distractions and low motivation to work.

How Servant Leadership Can Help Employees Navigate Anxiety and Retain Work Engagement

Within the workplace, just as in our larger society, leaders play an essential role in guiding people in times of crisis to reduce anxiety and for business leaders to promote work performance and customer service. They can adopt the leadership approach coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay, The Servant as Leader. Servant leadership is defined as a leader who prioritizes the needs of employees and stakeholders within the community by promoting the fulfillment of others’ needs, attention to emotional suffering, and empowerment (Hu, He, Zhou, 2020). A recent study on the relationship of COVID-19 related anxiety and job engagement revealed that higher rates of servant leadership promoted job engagement (Hu, He, Zhou, 2020). Servant leaders are especially important in times of crisis as their skills are valued in keeping anxious workers engaged in the workplace. Servant leaders aid in providing workers with a stable psychological resource, such as the feeling of  purpose and meaning in life by encouraging others to consider our shared humanity in reducing the destructive effects of a crisis.

Be Attentive to the Emotional Needs of Employees

To do so, servant leaders must be attentive to and acknowledging of employees’ emotional needs in order to shape employees’ responses to a major crisis. Rather than a top-down, leader-first approach, servant leaders tend to be more effective in leading from the bottom and placing importance on the promotion of growth within employees – in this case by reducing the negative influences of anxiety caused by the ongoing pandemic that is killing 1,000 Americans per day.

Provide Affirmation of Their Confidence in Employees

In addition to connecting with and empathizing with employee concerns, servant leaders should provide affirmation of their confidence in their employees. When employees feel that their leaders care about their wellbeing, most will feel more valued in the workplace and most will be more willing to invest in their work roles. Added resources for employees and autonomy in remote working is also crucial in reducing the negative influences of employee anxiety on their job engagement and performance.

Focus on the Broader Community

Lastly, servant leaders also focus on the broader community. By creating a work culture that inspires employees to serve the community outside of their work, leaders help to deepen their sense of our common humanity and connectedness. When individuals feel a deepened sense of humanity and community, their attention is more likely to be directed towards action to alleviate others’ suffering as well as to be better teammates in the workplace.

Prioritize the Wellbeing of Employees

As we continue to navigate through the global pandemic, companies should continue to prioritize the wellbeing of employees to ensure work engagement. Utilizing techniques of servant leadership to recognize and acknowledge the possible effects of crisis-related anxiety and reduce the consequences of work disengagement may be a key factor of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

To read more about servant leadership, see Robert K. Greenleaf’s books, including The Power of Servant Leadership or The Servant as Leader.

About the Authors

Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.

Yeji Jang, MSW Intern, is a graduate intern at Espyr, working in the Network and Provider Relations Department and with Espyr’s Chief Clinical Officer.  A graduate of the University of Georgia with a B.S. in Psychology, and having worked with immigrant populations, she is currently finishing her last semester at Indiana University’s Graduate School of Social Work. After graduation, Yeji will pursue the goal of becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and then wants to practice clinical social work in a behavioral health setting.



About Espyr

For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change.  For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.