Leaders to staff: 'We're with you'

Front-line workers deal with anxiety, fear, and financial challenges while serving members.

April 2, 2020

As the restrictions and impacts related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) threat continue, credit union leaders are mindful of another concern: the mental health of their employees, especially front-line staff.

This requires adopting a mindset of “how do we support and inspire staff because they are financial first responders on the front lines of this relief effort,” says Bruce Adams, president/CEO of the Connecticut Credit Union League. “They're part of something bigger than themselves right now, and they're putting their personal health at risk to keep their credit union going, their local communities going, and our national economy going.”

He says many mental health professionals are quarantined at home and could provide invaluable services to employees on the front lines, possibly at reduced rates. The Connecticut League is identifying some of these experts to work with its member credit unions if they are needed, he says.

Adams served as associate general counsel for Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He played a principal role in handling the tidal wave of charitable donations collected in the aftermath of the shooting.

“Crises like these are never the same,” Adams says. “Confident leadership and stability are the name of the game. You’ve got to start from scratch and build up your resources, tune your engine every day, and get better as you go along.”

3 levels of anxiety

Sandi Carangi, CEO of $79 million asset Mercer County Community Credit Union, Hermitage, Pa., agrees that leadership is more important than ever at this critical time.

“I think in the back of employees’ minds, they’ve always assumed the CEO was there to take care of the credit union and its members,” Carangi says. “But now, in just a couple of weeks, this has shifted to where employees want to know the CEOs is taking care of them at this time of a great national crisis.”

She says employees feel anxiety on three levels:

1. They’re afraid family members will contract the virus. “That’s the No. 1 concern for CEOs about employees’ state of mind,” Carangi says.

2. They’re worried about their jobs. She says credit union leaders are doing a great job managing staff’s fears in this area, and commends the CUNA Council Community for the networking it has offered during the COVID-19 crisis.

3. Front-line staff are assisting members in dire circumstances while dealing with their own financial challenges. Millions of consumers have lost their jobs and are turning to credit unions for guidance, Carangi says.

“At the same time, our employees are facing their own set of tough circumstances, with family members out of work and worries about their jobs,” she says. “It’s a burden on our employees trying to help our members and their own families at the same time.”

‘We’re with you’

James Collins, president/CEO of $333 million asset O Bee Credit Union, Lacey, Wash., says his staff have the same concerns as those at Mercer County Community. He shares a simple message with staff: “We're with you.”

“Our intent is to keep our employees going through this,” Collins says of his plan to keep employees on the payroll as long as possible. “But we also know a lot of our employees have spouses who have been laid off or are going to be laid off. This will be a financial issue for them and we can't affect that directly, so we're trying to help in any way we can.”

Randy Smith, president/CEO of $525 million asset TLC Community Credit Union, Adrian, Mich., says front-line employees are typically the lowest paid staff members. At TLC Community, there are several young parents serving members directly.

“They’re appropriately concerned about bringing home the virus to their kids,” Smith says. “I check in every day at as many branches as I can and let them know that I get it. There’s a constant stream of communication and meetings.

Smith says while employees have plenty to be concerned about, pay doesn’t have to be one of them.

“Our reputation of fine service is the result of our employees’ fine service,” he says. “We’ve cut back our lobby hours, and even though our employees might be working short shifts, I’m paying them for a full day’s pay. I’m going to keep doing that for as long as a I can to try to get through this.”

Smith also says he won’t compel employees to come into work if they’re anxious about the virus. “If somebody doesn’t want to be here, we won't force them. They can go home and I’ll still pay them and welcome them back when this whole thing is over.”

Music therapy

Front-line staff at $239 million asset ISU Credit Union, Pocatello, Idaho, also are anxious about working during the COVID-19 threat, Lynette Battson, human resources director.

“Not only are they anxious about the virus and the need to protect their families, they’re concerned about their jobs,” she says. That’s especially true when employees are classified as “nonessential” and sent home to shelter in place.

To ease staff’s anxiety, Battson promotes the credit union’s employee assistance program and provides a monthly wellness challenge. “I found a free online course from Yale on happiness we’ll use for our Q2 wellness challenge. The course is 10 weeks long for a couple of hours each week. Hopefully it will help employees to focus on something else and encourage them to actively search for happiness during these challenging times.”

ISU uses music to soothe staff’s fears, creating a playlist of songs that makes them happy.

“Studies show that music can alter our emotions,” she says. “With our lobbies closing and social distancing being practiced, employees can feel isolated. Collaborating together to create a playlist promotes unity while giving staff an emotional boost.”

Listen to a CUNA News Podcast episode about O Bee Credit Union's pandemic response