Helping Employees through Customer Conflict During COVID


The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape for customer-facing, service-based employees. Now more than ever, employees are required to navigate difficult conversations, enforce rules and manage their own mental and physical health all while taking care of the job they were hired to do.

With provincial and federal vaccine and masking mandates in place and policy division across the nation, employees are seeing more conflict than ever before. And this conflict comes after a time of prolonged and persistent stress and isolation for us all—adding fuel to a fire that seemed already out of control.

To help, we’ve compiled a list of tips and strategies to support employees facing these challenges—during COVID and beyond.

What to do as an employee handling a conflict

  • Make time to listen to the distressed customer so they feel heard
  • Avoid jumping to conclusions or interrupting the concerned customer
  • Create emotional safety with the customer by using empathetic language and understanding
  • Reassure angry customers that they are heard
  • Ask a colleague to help or intervene
  • Approach the conflict resolution with positivity and optimism
  • Co-create a potential plan/solution—where possible, try to involve the customer and include their ideas in how to resolve the situation
  • Maintain the confidentiality and dignity of the customer as much as possible
  • Be sure to contact authorities if the conflict escalates

What to do as a leader for your employees

  • Have a quiet, private place for employees to be able to take a moment and calm down after a stressful incident
  • Evaluate your rules and guidelines—are they appropriate and/or current?
  • Are there appropriate boundaries and systems in place to ensure the physical and emotional safety of your employees?
  • Ensure that employee who experienced traumatic or high-stress incident can debrief with their supervisor so that distress can be mitigated, and the employee can feel safe and supported
  • If the job allows, allowing a stressed employee to take a walk can release stress-relieving chemicals and act as an anxiety outlet

Simple exercises to help support your employees’ mental well-being

  • 4×4 breathing exercise. This exercise can help ease anxiety before or after responding in a high stress situations:
    • Exhale all of your air out
    • Gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of four
    • Hold at the top of the breath for a count of four
    • Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of four
  • Use a comfort object. Employees can carry an item with them or touch an item near them to help distract from their anxiety. Touching a smooth stone, a table, a stress ball or something else of meaning can be soothing in a stressful situation
  • 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. For employees who are finding on-the-spot stress to be overwhelming (helpful in avoiding panic attacks) to help bring them back to the present:
    • Name five things that you can see around you
    • Focus on four things that you can feel (such as the wind blowing on your face or the sun on your skin)
    • Name three things that you can hear around you
    • Notice two things that you can smell around you right now
    • Focus on one thing that you can taste

If you and your employees find you’re dealing with this kind (or any kind) of prolonged or intermittent conflict, be sure to access your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to get help. Whether you have the Arive EAP or access to another program, accessing support to help manage emotional trauma like this can make a world of difference.

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