Leading in this unprecedented moment: 8 wellbeing leadership strategies for responding to COVID-19

By Renee Moorefield, CEO, Wisdom Works Group & Chair, Wellness at Work Initiative, Global Wellness Institute (GWI)

“This is an unprecedented moment. It’s important that we approach it with a sense of calm and responsibility—because we have many people counting on us.”
—Google CEO Sundar Pichai

Like Google’s CEO, you likely realize you and your organization face an unprecedented moment. In a world filled with volatility, unpredictability and accelerating complexity, we are collectively experiencing a pandemic of COVID-19, also called the Coronavirus.

The New York Times emphasizes what we’re all feeling: “No one has a playbook for this.” COVID-19 has already affected people you know, communities and countries you care deeply about, and every part of the ecosystem that contributes to your business. In some ways, this infectious disease seems enigmatic—no one knows exactly how it will play out, and there is no single solution for dealing with it.

All that said, you are not powerless.


Out of the 7.8 billion people living on our planet, at least 3.5 billion are employed. As an employer, you not only significantly impact people who work for you, you impact their families, friends and extended social networks. Use this ripple effect for good. Your responses to COVID-19, large and small, show your concern for the wellbeing of people your organization touches, as well as your concern for humankind.

Alongside the steps you’re already taking, consider these eight wellbeing leadership strategies:

1. Lead with facts, not fear. The situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing minute by minute. Your job as a leader is not to make it seem any better or worse than it is but to stay informed and communicate with clarity, candor and care. (This list of trustworthy global health resources at the GWI’s new PositivelyWell site will help.) Appoint specific people in your organization to remain updated with the facts and make sure those facts are widely shared. Tap into the wisdom and resources of your governmental bodies, community health agencies, insurance and healthcare providers, and other business and community partners to create a shared approach for listening to people’s concerns and coordinating a path of communication and action. Also, educate people to directly access the latest information about COVID-19 so they can make informed choices for their loved ones and individual lives. Clear, dependable communication and a sense of personal agency help people worry less, relax more, and experience greater calm in the middle of a crisis.

2. Follow tried-and-true methods. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offer indispensable ways employees can help prevent the spread of infectious diseases, from washing hands to social distancing to maintaining a clean workspace. Tailor these methods to your organization, share them with every member of your workforce, and encourage employees to spread them through their networks. Build on key lessons from the experience of others who are already dealing with the Coronavirus epidemic. Adopt the CDC’s robust list of organization-wide actions for planning, preparing and responding to a Coronavirus outbreak to reduce the negative impact on your business, employees, customers and the public.

3. Surface and dispel rumors. When humans perceive a gap, we fill it. Our brain does this naturally in an attempt to make sense of our circumstances; this marvelous human capacity enables us to create a seamless, coherent experience in our daily living. Distressing situations such as COVID-19, however, bring the gaps in our knowledge into stark awareness—and we often fill this unknown with rumor rather than reality. (Consider the heightened xenophobia and racism that seems to follow the virus.) This is damaging to people, your work culture and your business. Address ungrounded rumors with facts, as well as compassion for the fears and anxieties likely driving them.

4. Don’t forget about the human connection. COVID-19 is reorganizing the way many organizations think about work. For some jobs, remote work is on the rise along with the use of flexible work policies, allowing employees more control over when, where and how work gets done. These social-distancing strategies make sense for flattening the growth of the virus, yet they can unwittingly foster employee loneliness, a loss of “team,” and an erosion in the company culture. Whether or not your organization shifts to remote work, don’t forget: Relationships are the lifeblood of your business. Take steps to help people stay in touch with your company’s purpose and vision, as well as their unique role in it. Ask leaders to use all means possible to connect people with each other and do regular check-ins to see how people are doing personally rather than solely focusing on work. Human connection is paramount to wellbeing.

5. Get candid about stress. It can be difficult not to “catch” the anxiety that’s multiplying about COVID-19 globally—even faster than the virus itself. Yet, as the leader, your fears will be amplified within your teams and organization. People look to you to provide a constructive framework of meaning, guidance and reassurance. Commit to self-care strategies that help you lead from wellbeing instead of stress. (The next bullet offers many possibilities.) Provide forums where people can openly share their concerns. Broaden people’s perspectives by sharing this list of 10 reasons why we shouldn’t panic by microbiology professor Ignacio López-Goñi. Help people recall specific ways they’ve already demonstrated adaptability throughout their lives and work; they can rely on this innate capacity to navigate this pandemic with resilience. (So can you, by the way—and you’ll be a more effective leader for it.)

6. Focus on self-care. Global economist Thierry Malleret, and contributor to the GWI’s Wellness Brief, claims, “Leading a well life boosts our immune system and is, therefore, one of the possible antidotes to the virus.” Potent advice! We all have a responsibility to keep ourselves in check, mind and body. Help employees boost immunity and cope with stress by getting enough sleep, physically moving throughout the day, putting clear boundaries on how often they check Coronavirus media, consciously breathing when worries arise, engaging in ways to be grateful, staying connected with others, and eating well. GWI’s PositivelyWell site also provides medical evidence showing how an optimistic outlook correlates with better health outcomes. This isn’t about throwing new wellness programs at people; this is about inviting people to integrate wellness and stress management behaviors into their lives and work. We can also remember our common humanity during this crisis; our focus on self-care contributes to the emotional balance we need for making decisions to positively impact us all.

7. Ask: Where else can we serve? COVID-19 has no respect for boundaries. Everyone is touched by it in some way, regardless of age, race, geography, gender or any other way we categorize ourselves. For many of us, it is unusual to feel the uncertainties this virus brings. We must remember that many communities feel deep insecurities every day; this virus may compound their suffering. Consider the effects on schoolchildren, older generations, poor and marginalized people, and the growing population of homeless worldwide, as well as workers who lack a health safety net and people who work in the hardest-hit industries such as hospitality, travel, retail, healthcare and restaurants. How can your organization and members of your workforce actively support these people?

8. Make plans for recovery. People in your organization may feel so grabbed by this crisis that it is hard to imagine it ending. Remind everyone: We will get through this crisis. As some countries already see glimmers of the other side of this pandemic, now is the time to explore: How can your recovery efforts strengthen the capabilities and wellbeing of your workforce? How will you mine this crisis for real learning that benefits your organization and the people in it?


The economic, business and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are another proof-point of our interdependencies worldwide. We thrive when we show our accountability to each other’s wellbeing as well as our own. Yes, this crisis is scary and difficult. It is also an opportunity to advance your wellbeing leadership on a larger scale, reset the purpose and priorities of your organization, and evolve new capacities for vitality and resilience within your workforce and yourself.

We are on this journey with you. Our teams at the Wellness at Work Initiative and the Global Wellness Institute stand ready to support you with evidence-based information, resources and a global network of wellness leaders during this sobering and demanding time. We are committed to the power of our shared purpose, collaboration and optimism as an antidote to fear.

AUTHOR BIO: Renee Moorefield, PhD, MCC, is CEO of Wisdom Works, a firm that enhances the readiness and capability of leaders to lead organizations where people thrive. Renee has advised thousands of executives globally who seek to operate from an inspired purpose and vision, wellbeing and internal balance, plus the forward-leaning leadership capabilities required to evolve and uplift workplaces, families and communities, and our planet. Nike, Hyatt, The Coca-Cola Company, Sainsbury, Cox Automotive, Merck & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton are among her clients. Renee has been featured in Prevention, Forbes, Conscious Company, Hotel Executive, CEO Magazine, Experience Life, Coaching World, Thrive Global and other publications. She chairs the Wellness at Work Initiative at the Global Wellness Institute to bring together thought-leadership for wellbeing in the new world of work and helps guide The Wellness Moonshot, a call to action for cultivating a world free of preventable disease. She directs Be Well Lead Well®, a set of transformative leadership resources, including Be Well Lead Well Pulse®, a pioneering leadership assessment that empowers leaders to make thriving a game-changer in their teams and organizations, starting with themselves. Renee can be contacted at [email protected] and +1.719.201.9294.