Servant Leadership as a Response to Crisis

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.

Five Steps to A More Effective EAP

You made a smart decision. You researched comprehensive EAP (Employee Assistance Program) plans and now you’re interviewing providers in order to offer your employees a host of customized behavioral health services as a valuable new component of your benefits package. Of course, your motives are not entirely selfless. You understand that a customized EAP plan from a specialty provider can decrease absenteeism, increase productivity and lead to a happier, more loyal workforce.

Now that you’re ready to offer your employees all these wonderful, helpful tools and services, how do you make sure your employees take advantage of them? We offer five suggestions:

Build Awareness and Education

If you need to communicate a small process change, a mass company email might be sufficient. But to increase awareness of a major new benefit – or to make it part of your employee onboarding process – something more thorough and intimate is required. Furthermore, most of your employees know very little about an EAP or all it has to offer, so education is as important as awareness. Consider the following:

  • Team or department meetings
  • Company lunch and learns
  • Develop easy-to-understand collateral
  • Develop an ongoing internal marketing program
  • Designate a subject matter expert to answer questions (typically a member of your HR team)

It’s important to keep in mind that increasing awareness requires more than a one-time attempt. You need to be sure that you’re reaching employees with the right message and with enough frequency that they’ve internalized it and remember it. Think of it like an ad on TV. If you’ve only seen the ad once you’re not likely to remember it. It’s only after seeing the ad several times that you remember the message.

Of course, if your EAP provider is a good partner, you won’t have to go it alone. They should be providing marketing materials, contributing ideas and working with you hand-in-hand to help you develop the right communication plan.

Make It Easy 

A comprehensive EAP plan has dozens of benefits and offerings, including multiple methods of reaching out for help. This could cause first-time users to be too confused, overwhelmed or apprehensive to dive in. That, of course, defeats the purpose of any EAP – employees must be able to take advantage of the services they need without needless barriers.

Make sure you find an EAP provider that can customize your plan to your employees and company, so you’re not offering nonessential or extra services. They should also help ensure the products and services are presented clearly and accessed easily. Don’t complicate things; if an employee needs help, it should be as simple as texting, making a phone call or sending an email.

Address Privacy Concerns

Make sure employees know that their information is secure and won’t be shared. Because EAPs can deal with issues involving mental or behavioral health, personal finances and/or legal issues, employers must be aware of confidentiality and legal concerns surrounding those services and communicate how each employee’s interaction with the EAP will remain completely private.

In fact, Federal law requires confidentiality of alcohol and drug abuse records, for example, and there are penalties for unlawful or unauthorized release of information. These same regulations also prohibit the implicit or negative disclosure of information to anyone in the company besides the HR department. EAPs – or the companies that offer them – are simply not allowed to release any information without signed consent, regardless of the nature of the problem.

According to The Society for Human Resource Management, employees are more likely to use your EAP services if they understand this use will be strictly confidential. Additionally, if they fear using the EAP for certain services will have a negative impact on their careers, no one will participate.

Our advice: Be strict about confidentiality and communicate that policy clearly to your employees.

Address Behavioral Health Stigma

Another reason some employees may not take advantage of all the services in your EAP is the stigma of mental or behavioral health issues. The Mayo Clinic’s website calls stigma “a negative judgment based on a personal trait; in this case, having a mental health condition.” This stigma and accompanying discrimination are linked to outdated beliefs that mental illnesses don’t have the same biological foundation as physical issues, plus repeated media depictions of people with mental illness as being dangerous and unstable.

In an article from Psychology Today, Graham C.L. Davey Ph.D. points out the widespread nature of these depictions. “People tend to hold these negative beliefs about mental health problems regardless of their age, regardless of what knowledge they have of mental health problems and regardless of whether they know someone who has a mental health problem.”

Removing the stigma is no simple task. It would require the reversal of centuries of ignorant and prejudicial thought and actions. A cultural change is needed. Employers can’t drive this type of change alone, but they should have an interest in playing an important role in driving change.

Employers can start by providing a forum for open discussion. One idea is to bring in a behavioral health professional to talk about the facts, dispel misconceptions and to discuss the bravery and benefits of seeking help. The primary goal of such an event is to give each employee the confidence to get help when they need it without fear of professional or personal repercussions. Another idea is to be sure when messaging employees about physical health or well-being that you include emotional/psychological health messages, as well.

Tell the Whole Story

As long as you have a comprehensive plan, you need to make sure you tell your employees the whole story. Don’t overly focus on just the serious behavioral health issues like substance abuse; communicate the full breadth of services your EAP provides, which may include:

  • Financial consultations
  • Legal consultations
  • Eldercare and/or childcare referrals
  • Identity theft recovery
  • Professional development
  • And many more

Learn More

Want to know if you have the right EAP for your company or learn more about increasing employee engagement in your EAP? Click here and we’ll be happy to help or call Espyr at 866-570-3479.


A Surprisingly Effective Solution for Stronger EAP Engagement

One of the most common criticisms of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) is the low level of employee engagement. The National Business Group on Health estimates that only 5% of employees use their employer’s EAP annually. This estimate is consistent with other sources, which quote utilization in the single digits. Of course, this low engagement estimate includes employers who have signed up for “free” EAPs bundled in a disability insurance plan. These employers may only be interested in an EAP in order to check a box, so they’re not aggressively promoting their programs. In fact, providers of these “free” EAPs are banking on low utilization in order for their economic models to work.

There are many ways to increase EAP employee engagement, and a good EAP provider should be very willing to assist you with your efforts. Examples of some important tactics include:

Building better awareness – Awareness of EAP plans and the breadth of services offered tends to be very low in many companies. More and better communication of the EAP and the services offered is one of the highest impact steps an employer can take.

Customizing the EAP – Comprehensive EAP providers should work with you to customize the services they offer, as well as how those services are delivered, to meet the unique needs of your company and your employees.

Senior leadership engagement – When employees see their leaders are “walking the walk” by engaging with their EAP, it adds credibility and legitimacy.

Make it part of the company culture – Progressive employers recognize the importance of behavioral health, yet most employer wellness programs only focus on physical health. Your EAP and behavioral health services should be integrated across benefit programs.

Overcome the stigma – Sadly, many employees who would most benefit from the services of an EAP refrain from doing so because of the stigma often associated with mental health and EAPs. Making it part of the culture and having senior leadership set the example will help break down the stigma and increase engagement.

Emphasize Coaching to Help Overcome the Stigma

Another potentially more powerful way to overcome the stigma associated with EAPs is to get employees to think of their EAP in a different light. Yes, EAPs are designed to address critical behavioral health conditions like substance abuse or depression. But today’s EAPs offer so much more. Often, employees need advice, direction or just someone to talk to; they don’t need formal counseling. What they need is a coach.

Progressive EAPs offer a broad array of coaching services. And, while EAPs may have a negative connotation to some, coaching is generally always viewed positively. That means more of your employees will seek the help they need.

Don’t be confused and think that coaches are the JV team. Good coaching programs from comprehensive EAP providers will be selective about their coaches, only hiring those that are mental health professionals with master’s degrees.

Types of Coaching Programs

Coaching programs can effectively address the most common issues facing your employees every day – relationship issues, financial concerns, difficulty transitioning into a new position or new location, and leadership issues. Any one of these issues can effect job productivity, engagement levels and job performance. Examples of the types of coaching programs available include:

  • Personal Coaching – Helps employees through issues or events that are impacting their lives in some way. These could be relationship issues that are personal or work-related.
  • Health Coaching – Helps employees through health issues such as having trouble sticking to a diet, handling stress or quitting smoking.
  • Financial Coaching – As earnings or saving issues leaves more employees stressed and looking for help, the need for financial coaching becomes increasingly relevant. Financial coaching can help them with personal money management and related financial issues.
  • Leadership Coaching – Helps managers and supervisors recognize and address the behavioral health issues that are creating barriers to advancement or greater leadership success. Leadership coaches in a comprehensive EAP program will help managers identify those issues and guide them in developing and sticking to an improvement plan.

If you’d like to know more about how coaching programs can help your company, call Espyr at 866-570-3479 or go click here.