No one, from the C-Suite on down, should imagine that they have been spared psychological disruption and pain during this weird time.
Understanding the psychological impact of the pandemic and implementing a few commonsense strategies will help alleviating the disruption that the virus has caused in everyone’s work life. Psychologically aware leaders can help prevent decreases in productivity loss of valuable employees.
The COVID virus is not just biologically novel; it’s also a novel cultural shared experience.
The organizations executives are leading in September 2020 are not the same ones that entered the new year in January. Not since the Second World War have Americans experienced the degree of disruption, uncertainty, stress and sheer novelty that the pandemic has brought with it.
What are the key psychological impacts of COVID -19?
• Trust in leadership has been profoundly damaged.
• Uncertainty has been assaulting people at unbearable levels for prolonged periods of time.
• As individuals, organizations, communities and as countries we have confronted an existential crisis.
• There’s an overdose of novelty straining peoples’ capacity to organize their thinking and tasks.
Trust in leadership
There may be many reasons why the U.S. leads the world in COVID cases and deaths, including our multiculturalism, federalist structure and strong streak of libertarianism. But leadership malpractice can’t be ignored. People count on leaders in a crisis—to be prepared, to use information intelligently, to strategize effectively, to mobilize resources, to implement and adjust plans as needed. When leaders fail in these essential functions the outcome is not just material, it’s psychological. People who needed their leaders to be competent have a crisis of trust with resulting anxiety, insecurity, alienation, cynicism and sometimes distorted thinking, such as resorting to conspiracy theory thinking.
From a psychological vantage point, the relationship with one leader effects relationships with all leaders. We originally learn to trust others to guide and protect us as children. That fundamental experience of trust in leaders (originally parents) allows us to trust that bosses, company presidents and organizational leaders know what they are doing and are making good decisions. That trust in turn allows employees, investors and everyone else counting on leaders to surrender a degree of agency—let them make decisions for us.
The widespread experience of leadership failure may contaminate relationships with all leaders, including employers, executives, board members etc. Business leaders should be aware of this possible contamination and work to restore trust in their leadership.
Everyone has been subjected to chronically sky-high levels of uncertainty. There are two things to keep in mind here. First, it’s not the time to add more uncertainty if it can be avoided. Keep change to the minimum necessary level. Second, keep in mind that your employees are very anxious about more changes to come — they are worrying about major upheavals, losing their jobs or other massive disruptions as yet unannounced. Try to be as transparent as you can, acknowledging what can’t be predicted but reassuring when possible.
Both individuals and organizations may have experienced existential crises, beset with questions about meaning and purpose. Why are we doing this anyway? Is this what I want to be doing with my life? What are our (or my) real values or priorities? As these questions percolate through our consciousnesses and our organizations, startling and unexpected decisions may be made. Key employees might depart. Executives might change course. Brace for these psychological forces that increase the overall uncertainty level. On the positive side, there’s opportunity for growth and creativity when fundamental assumptions are questioned.
Other dimensions of the crisis vary significantly among individuals but there are common and predictable threads.
Loss and grief
It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t known someone who’s been severely ill with the virus or who has died. Nevertheless, how close to home loss has come is highly variable. Death rates have been much higher in communities of color so employees from these communities might have experienced far more profound losses than others.
Anxiety and fear
Fear of getting sick. Fear of dying. Fear of dying alone. Fear of not being able to cope. Fear of not knowing how to keep safe. Economic anxiety. Job anxiety. Individuals vary in their tolerance for anxiety and the strength of their coping mechanisms. Nevertheless, no one is immune to the effects of chronic heightened anxiety and fear—on physical health, emotional solidity and cognitive performance. Flexibility, patience, compassion and adaptability on the part of leadership are in order to maximize the effectiveness of returning or remote employees.
Parents and caregivers are especially exhausted. Trying to work while a nine-month-old is crawling all over you or an eight-year-old needs to be home schooled is beyond taxing.
There is real danger in parents leaving the work force not because they want to or even because of economic necessity but simply because they can’t corral the space and resources to work and raise kids at the same time. Again, maximum flexibility and understanding on behalf of employers will go the furthest to ensuring retention of skilled and experienced employees.
In addition to the consequences mentioned above, people have faced issues of excessive isolation versus too much togetherness. Overstimulation versus under stimulation. Recurring bouts of self-doubt, confusion and disorientation. All these contribute to increased stress which takes its biological and cognitive toll. No one is likely to be at their best. Earlier I’ve written about psychological regression, an inevitable outcome of overload. In a regressive state, judgment, concentration, and emotional regulation are all compromised.
What can be done by leadership?
1. Stay personally involved with the recovery/re-entry process. Don’t delegate it to HR or a committee. Employees need a visible presence where leaders demonstrate awareness, understanding, flexibility and compassion.
2. Task managers with having a one-to-one conversation with every employee. In these conversations, ask open-ended and specific questions: What has the COVID experience been like for them? Have they lost any loved ones? Were they able to visit them or have a funeral? Do they have economic pressures, such as a spouse losing a job? What are they most anxious about? What about childcare and school for their kids? Were there any unexpected positive benefits of quarantine/work from home?
C-Suite executives should not be exempt from these conversations. Each of us has been personally affected in different and complex ways. Having to hide or push that aside compromises ones capacity to work.
Keep in mind that employees from communities of color are likely to have experienced a higher number of losses, since those communities have been hardest hit. Those with children and people with health issues that make them more vulnerable have added challenges, anxiety and stress.Those who are dependent on public transportation may worry about the added exposure that involves. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, less than a third of respondents felt it was safe to take public transportation.
Obviously, employers can’t solve all or even many of the problems people have faced that will emerge in these conversations. But awareness and compassion can help someone gather their strength and focus on work.
3. Practice maximum possible flexibility. Let employees combine remote and in person work. Allow for flex hours so they can take shifts watching their children. As of late August, only half of employees felt it was safe to return to the office according to the Edelman research.
4. Communicate frequently and regularly and be transparent about what you know, what you don’t know and what you plan to do. Employees wonder what will happen if they get sick. Or if they are exposed to a sick co-worker. They wonder how secure their jobs are. What if schools don’t open? Even if you have to admit to not knowing the answers, it is better to put the issues out on the table, as well as a clear timetable for when more information will be coming.
Know that the plans you put in place are probably going to have to change several times over. Plan on frequent updates—weekly would be a good place to start.
5. Model and encourage being patient, calm and adaptable. And understand that sometimes every one of us may fall apart.
The good news is that meaningful work is one of the most powerful antidotes to anxiety and depression. There’s a striking and recurrent image In Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile about everyday life during the Battle of Britain at the outset of World War II. Every morning, Londoners woke up to bombed out houses and buildings and horrible losses of life. Yet, while the crews are cleaning up the rubble and the bombs and the bodies, people are stepping around the chaos and going to work.
In this crisis, making it possible for people to work is a part of healing.