How To Manage Stress And Fear In A Post-Pandemic Workplace
When we return to the workplace, it will be different in many ways—some that are obvious, and others that are much less visible.
As author David Kessler said in a recent Harvard Business Review article, the disruption of our normal routines, loss of connection and fear about the future has led to feelings of “collective grief.” As workplace leaders, we have an opportunity to earn our employees’ trust when we acknowledge the difficult emotions they are experiencing.
In addition to keeping employees physically safe, we need to be mindful of the need for psychological safety. Managing fear and stress in the workplace is an ongoing focus in our recent webinars and interactive livestream events.
Here are some of the best recommendations we’ve heard from top leaders.
Prioritize Physical Safety While Encouraging Connection
Eventually the coronavirus pandemic will subside. Before offices reopen, companies will need to make changes to keep employees safe. That will include taking proactive measures like spacing desks further apart, returning to work in shifts and limiting the number of people able to gather in conference rooms and common areas.
Some of those changes may be temporary or situational, while others could be permanent. However, change management professional Cristina Herrera says physical distancing doesn’t mean we have to give up everything we’ve gained from a more collaborative workplace.
“The shift to a more shared environment of spaces has come with really great benefits, in terms of fostering and nurturing the tribe mentality that we are all one,” she said. “My work desk isn’t where I’ve come here to be 100 percent of the time, but to build relationships and have opportunities for innovation. We need to make sure we don’t jump too drastically to the other side, but we do need to be mindful that people are going to come into the workplace with fear. We need to make them feel safe and secure. And we need to provide them with the opportunities to take care of their own safety.”
Lead With Vulnerability
As researcher and author Brené Brown has said, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
During crises, leaders deal with unfamiliar or uncomfortable decisions and increased uncertainty. It’s time to let go of the outdated notion that the boss is the person everyone expects to have all the answers.
Now more than ever, leaders have to be transparent with employees, said Rex Miller, author and guest on our recent webinar about managing stress in the workplace.
When leaders are more vulnerable about what they’re experiencing, employees will feel more comfortable expressing their own fears and concerns.
“Share what you’re going through, what you think is happening now,” he said. “Share how you’re learning together. Invite other voices. Leaders have to be the first to express reality, to share what it’s really like for them.”
Stress can be contagious, Miller said. As many as 85% of employees report high levels of stress, he added, and 75% of employers say stress is their No. 1 concern impacting productivity.
While it can be constructive to admit you’re going through a challenging time, as a leader, you also need to manage your own stress so you can be better equipped to help employees.
A few basic steps leaders can take to manage their own stress include:
- Planning your day the night before to reduce “cognitive load”
- Doing your most mentally demanding tasks when you are most productive
- Working in 45-minute intervals with short breaks in between
- Making time for some form of exercise every day
- Eating a balanced diet and limiting your sugar intake
- Getting enough sleep
Stress can compound when having to learn new ways of doing things, which is why Miller recommends trying to maintain a routine as much as possible.
Consider Offering Additional Mental Health Services
Many companies have expanded mental health benefits in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, a recent survey by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions found 53% of employers are now offering additional programs.
New benefits range from online counseling sessions at no cost to providing employees with access to mindfulness apps. Employers are also providing expanded health care benefits, additional leave and greater scheduling flexibility.
Miller recommends hosting a company-wide meeting or webinar to ensure all employees understand what benefits are available to them. First, make sure they know what additional sick leave and extended family and medical leave they are entitled to—for example, under the new federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in the U.S.
Next, explain any updates your organization has made to your benefits or sick leave policy, as well as any other services you are offering.
Check In On Employees Frequently
COVID-19 upended routines, disrupted social lives, and separated people from their workplaces. It is not yet clear when we will return to normalcy. Or what to expect when we do. Everyone’s situation is unique and can change dramatically from one day to the next.
Whether your team continues to be distributed or you are returning to the workplace, it can be difficult to gauge how well your employees are handling their stress.
“Before you just go in with what you need them to do, ask them how they’re doing,” said Kerry Wekelo, CEO of Actualize Consulting. “Ask them every day. Don’t just assume that they’re okay.”