What can neuroscience teach us about how to respond to the Coronavirus

Chris Hyland | 12th March 2020

As the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues to test the global economy and health systems, employers and employees are rightly concerned about the ongoing impact that it will have on their business, culture, health and happiness.

Employers face the challenge of taking every possible action to protect their people, whilst also maintaining an operational business. We know that such epidemics are historically associated with a rise in depression and anxiety. But why?


Our approach to creating thriving work cultures at The Happiness Index is rooted in neuroscience. We believe it’s critical we understand how our brain works as it’s the foundation of how we think and behave as human beings.

The basal region (or reptilian brain) was the first part of the human brain to develop, and some animals like (no prizes for guessing) reptiles still rely solely on it. It’s part of our unconscious brain programmed to help us survive. It constantly scans the environment for threats, processes information and determines if something is a threat or an opportunity.  It wants to look out for itself. Faced with what seems like a threatening situation, such as the coronavirus, the reptilian brain’s instinct is fear. 

Triggering Stress

When your reptilian brain perceives such threats, it immediately sends an alert to your Amygdala (the centre of the Limbic system), which then activates the release of stress hormones into your body including Adrenaline and Cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone).

Increased levels of these hormones resulting from constant exposure to the threat of an ongoing epidemic, such as coronavirus, can significantly impact our health, productivity and even our ability to think creatively.


It’s important to remember that for many of your people, the coronavirus may not be the only factor causing stress at the moment. Globally we’re seeing people struggling to cope with a world of increasing political divisiveness, economic inequality and the impact of climate change.

As a human when you’re anxious and the reptilian part of your brain is already activated, when a new threat like coronavirus comes along, you’re primed to react. At this point your frontal cortex literally disconnects and you think only with your reptilian brain. 

what can we do about it? Don’t pull up the drawbridge!

Humans thinking only with their reptilian brains will be at odds with the behaviour that employers want to encourage during this period of uncertainty, so what can we do?  Whilst our instinctive reaction may be to pull up the drawbridge during uncertain times it is even more important for companies to 1) listen more 2) communicate more 3) share insight with their leaders, and 4) act in line with their values.


It’s more important than ever that you are able to listen on a daily basis to your people’s concerns and keep your lines of communication open. With a fast-changing situation and unprecedented numbers of employees working from home, self-isolating or ill, on short-term layoff or taking leave, it’s critical no one feels isolated and you’re all able to listen at scale to your people’s fears and concerns, and share them with your leaders. It allows your people to understand that they’re not alone in the way they may be feeling, and encourages peers to support each other in a compassionate, humane way.

Listening can also help your organisation determine what changes may need to be made in terms of how work might be re-organised. Those working at the front line often have the clearest insight of what will and won’t work and a deeper understanding of the practical challenges arising. Making your people part of the solution, and taking their views and ideas into account, means they’re more likely to support changes you make, rather than feeling they’ve been imposed on them. 


The antidote to fear and uncertainty is providing transparent, regular, and accurate information to your people. In an environment where the media can stoke panic and confusion your leaders must demonstrate their ability to deal with the situation, project a calm approach and share critical information from trusted sources.  Communicate to your employees how they can protect themselves, what is being done to protect them and to maintain business continuity and the support that you can offer them: e.g. sick pay, employee assistance programmes, mental health support, child and eldercare, or flexible working. 

It’s vital to put the risk into perspective and strike the balance between your organisation and its people being prepared for the spread of the virus, whilst reassuring them that there is no need to panic.


Give your leaders and managers daily access to insight on how your people are feeling and what their concerns are. This will enable them not only to calibrate their response and communications but to deal with situations as they arise within their teams more effectively.


This is a time when your leaders must strive more than ever to act and think in line with your values. If you say you put your people first, you must demonstrate how as a business you’re doing this, to ensure trust doesn’t break down and a toxic culture develops. 

Employee voice 24/7

Employee Voice 24/7 Pre-Built Survey Banner

To help all organisations during this difficult period, The Happiness Index is offering free access to our Employee Voice product. It enables your people to share anonymously how they’re feeling at any time or any place, and as often as they need so that you and your leaders can listen in real-time, understand their sentiment and track the key themes emerging to gauge how to communicate and respond.

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