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In Practice

As Coronavirus Spreads, Society and Organizations Take an Emotional Journey

The global coronavirus crisis should remind us that, when dealing with a pandemic, information and empathy are key to understanding and empathizing with co-workers and clients who may be on different parts of the journey.

Confronted with a cacophony of voices and ever-changing facts on the ground, it is important for us, as colleagues and business leaders, to understand the likely path of developments. Otherwise, people will create their own narrative, which can be disruptive — or even dangerous. 

Thankfully, as a global community, we have rich data and experience in dealing with pandemics. While every health crisis will be different, some of the patterns observed repeat themselves, allowing us to extrapolate insights from prior situations to the current one. And just as the development of a crisis tends to follow the same pattern, so does our emotional response to it. 

Some insights into the expected stages of the COVID-19 (as the disease caused by the virus is called) crisis can be helpful, along with a consideration of the emotional journey we can expect many of our colleagues, customers, governments, and societies to take. The spread of a pandemic generally takes the following course:

Initiation: It’s believed that COVID-19 originally stems from a virus that, in the past, has only infected animals but has now mutated to infect humans, and in such a manner that person- to-person infection is possible. This is notably different from a similar disease, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS‐CoV, where most individuals were infected by animals, and person-to-person infection was uncommon. It appears in this case that the disease first appeared in Wuhan, China.

Detection: Many viruses, as is the case for COVID-19, produce symptoms that are similar to those exhibited by other diseases (such as seasonal influenzas or the common cold). This can delay the correct identification of a new virus.  

Containment: Once the disease has been identified, local and national governments will usually move quickly to try and contain the spread. This will often take the form of educating people on how to stay safe, restrictions on movement or large gatherings and, in some cases, quarantine. Often the most difficult time for people and countries to deal with is the start of this phase, as people adjust to a new normal through social distancing, for example.  

Acknowledging the stages of pandemic development and the emotional response to it can help us move toward the acceptance stage more quickly.

Mitigation: As containment of the virus acts to slow its spread, scientists and health authorities will be collecting valuable data on how best to treat the disease, information which will be used to improve the health outcomes of those impacted. In addition, work on a vaccine is underway, and will likely be a key component of any long-term mitigation strategy (as was the case for H1N1, or Swine flu, in 2009).

Management: At some stage, managing this virus will become business as usual. It may be that the virus dies out, or it may be that people will add a regular COVID-19 vaccine to their health routine, as many do for influenza, pneumococcal pneumonia, etc.

The Emotional Journey

Just as a pandemic will go through its various stages, individuals confronted by a pandemic will often go through a predictable emotional journey. Understanding this is key to empathizing with others who are at various stages in the process.

Unfortunately, denial is usually where people begin. Press reports have said that in China, authorities were slow to inform the public of the risks of COVID-19. And reportedly in Italy, errors in the handling of an early case may have exacerbated the breakout there. These types of behaviors can be observed with colleagues and clients as well. Only two weeks ago, I was insisting that all my important external meetings remain scheduled. But as the coronavirus has spread through Europe, I have moved along in my thinking, and I acknowledge that the in-person meetings cannot go forward for the time being.

Contempt quickly follows denial — and is, in some respect, the most challenging phase. Not only are people in this phase still in denial, but they are upset at what they perceive as “people overreacting all around them.” These people may act in a hostile manner toward others, and even continue with behaviors and activities that endanger themselves and those around them. It is important to try and move through this step quickly — even better, skip it all together. 

Next comes blame, but playing the blame game is never good, and in the case of a pandemic, it is not helpful. Blame is a natural human response, but people need to keep accusatory feelings under control. It’s important not to make others feel uncomfortable or discriminated against, based on country of origin, ethnicity, or anything else; emotions run high during times of crisis, and we need to be sensitive to each other.

Over time, people will adjust to the new normal, and move toward acceptance. They will have adjusted their daily routine in order to cope. People will regain their positivity and have the information they need to continue with their normal lives, albeit with some inconveniences. 

Acknowledging the stages of pandemic development and the emotional response to it can help us move toward the acceptance stage more quickly. Not only will this leave us feeling happier and safer, but also in the right mindset to tackle the challenges of the day with positive energy and a solid sense of purpose. It will help us maintain the sort of colleague and client focus so critical to the success of any organization.

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Norman Dreger is a partner at Mercer and an International Region Multinational Client Group Leader.


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