Unprecedented times call for unprecedented leadership. Without a doubt, society-at-large has very recently provided ample opportunity for, albeit important, disruption within today’s workplace. Some of these disruptions are global health in nature (COVID-19), others involve socio-economic and equality related unrest (with the understandable worldwide response to the taking of George Floyd’s life) and multiple economic uncertainties to boot (due to the slowing economy and mass layoffs resulting in the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. since 1948).
These are not idle matters in the minds of your employees, and how you choose to partner, or not with them during this time may literally define the success of your business and the long-term well-being of your team members moving forward. We’ve provided solutions and tools to these challenges in this article and tips on how you can deploy some of these solutions now, as you strive to lead with clarity and resilience.
Quick Solutions for Engaged Leaders
- Be authentic and honest: Saying “I don’t know” or expressing disappointment or concern about world events impacting the workplace normalizes employees’ emotions. (Note that what we are not saying is that you have to have all of the answers.)
- Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP): An EAP is an employer-provided program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance and causes them stress.
- Encourage HR-led support discussions: HR led talk-groups that don’t attempt to solve societal issues but provide support encourage listening for understanding and remaining neutral and patient on societal issues in the workplace.
- Have unified leadership team communication: The leadership team that communicates (a lot) together, successfully stays together. Employees need to see leadership actively supporting each other as well as staff.
- Be open to flexible work arrangements: Whether it’s a reduced workday on Fridays to help with an employee’s needs or remote work capabilities for a period of time to help employees work through challenges during this time, flexible work arrangements can go a very long way in supporting employees.
- Provide quiet rooms or spaces: Having spaces available for team members to decompress during rest breaks, meal periods, or when an employee is feeling extra stressed or emotional, can be a game-changer. Some people may meditate, pray, or just reflect and calm themselves emotionally and psychologically, so they can return to work.
- Encourage taking mental health days: Approving a paid day off for an employee who is badly struggling or directly impacted by public events can help them reboot and recompose themselves for returning to their job. This needs to be governed carefully by leadership and HR.
- Offer take-home resources: Offering local resources and books that address ways to cope and manage through various social, public health, and financial issues can go a long way for team members.
- Understand all healthcare benefits offerings: Having your HR lead fully understanding your benefits program is essential. Beyond the EAP, HR needs to know the coverage allotted within your benefits program for mental health services and other services. Additionally, seeking supplemental health care coverage when possible may also be a useful action to take.
- Create a culture of acceptance and openness: Suffice to say, a work culture that understands the importance of inclusivity, cultural sensitivity, equality in aspects of employment, and is tuned into societal events around it experiences more success than other company cultures who are less aligned do.
The Don’ts of Leading in Difficult Time
Having pointed out some quick suggestions for engaging your team members during turbulent times, we also have suggestions of actions and circumstances that leaders should avoid. These tips are equally valuable, as they may save you from working harder than needed with fewer results.
Do Not Be Silent
Although a manifesto is not required, or desired, companies who remain silent during times like we are experiencing now typically come off as disconnected, socially or culturally tone-deaf or uncaring through the eyes of employees who are heavily impacted by what is happening.
Do Not Feel Compelled to Defend Others’ Actions or Be Defensive
Since we are not society’s cultural police, we have the luxury of not needing to attempt to define the core issues that we in society are wrestling with, nor defend actions of others, for any reason.
Harvard Business Review notes that, “… for instance, when learning about police brutality against unarmed Black people, one reaction might be to search for evidence about what the victim did to deserve abuse, rather than demonstrating compassion and empathy. Another example is diminishing protesters by focusing on and judging those who engaged in looting instead of discussing the unjust act that drove people to the streets. Leaders must resist such reactions, because they do not allow for constructive engagement.”
Moreover, the opportunity to offend and divide employees within your workplace increases dramatically when trying to redefine the societal situation for everyone or how it needs to be solved.
Do Not Overgeneralize Peoples’ Experiences Within or Outside of the Workplace
It is impossible to fully understand and, thus, articulate each person’s experience during these times (whether we are referring to COVID-19, aligning with the Black Lives Matter movement, or personal economic struggles). Since this is the case, no leadership team member should attempt to express or speak for others. Bringing awareness to staff members of others’ struggles is fine, but attempting to offer or suggest anecdotes beyond patience, empathy, understanding, and continued support is difficult to get right.
Do Not Try to Be Their Counselor
Even if you are a mental health professional, which most of us are not, you should never act the role of a counselor. You are the employer. Do not attempt to “fix” employees’ personal issues. Instead, refer them to an EAP or other outside resource. Remain as your employees’ leadership resource, but do not attempt to become their solution.
Do Not Overpromise
Since we have acknowledged that these societal issues are not of your company’s making, note that you cannot control when or how they come and go. Guaranteeing that COVID-19 will definitely be behind us in 90 days or that civil unrest will dissipate by next week, and so on, are promises that you cannot keep since you have no control over these events. Once again, acknowledge employees’ experiences and reaffirm that leadership will be there to support, comfort, and guide the company through these times.
Do Not Allow Acknowledged Outside Issues to Take Center Stage Internally
Although we need to acknowledge peoples’ grief and experiences overall, allowing them to take the center stage from the business at hand is never a healthy or sustainable move. Thoughtfully structure the access to and usage of the tools we shared at the beginning of this article and do not permit the issue(s) from overtaking the reason why each team member is there.
Not only would this action be bad for business, but also keep in mind that each employee’s role within the company and product or service that your company offers is what binds everyone together; it is the one commonality that everyone can support, engage in and remain devoted to, regardless of what is happening around them.
Do Not Permit Violent, Bigoted, and Toxic Behaviors Disguised as Employee Grief and Stress
Regardless of what employees are experiencing during these tumultuous times, acts or threats of violence, bigotedness or other toxic-like behaviors may not enter the workplace. Remaining empathetic to and acknowledging peoples’ emotions is critical, but excusing harmful behaviors cannot be tolerated. The company-at-large is trusting leadership to keep them safe and insisting on professionalism in your workplace is essential in maintaining order and safety.
What Great Leadership Looks Like in Challenging Times
There are many positive ways to show that leadership cares about their teams and the individuals within them. We have found that the common factors in successfully navigating tumultuous times is to follow these guidelines principles, as you lead your employees day to day.
Model Emotionally Reliable Leadership
The modeling of consistent leadership has a lot to do with your leadership team’s actions, not just their words. If you are an emotional mess on some days and ready for business on others, and it goes back and forth without anyone knowing what version of you they will get on any given day, you will only add to the stress, anxiety, and emotional discharge your workplace is already trying to manage.
Taking breaks, even days off as needed, so your leadership team can recharge is also vital. Remaining steady and emotionally reliable is essential for all other aspects of these helpful features to work for you.
Open Door Policy
I know, it’s an overused term of endearment, but it is essential. Leaders within the organization need to be accessible and emotionally available for employees. We do not get to choose when employees will need support or how they respond to crisis situations around us. Again, the key here is not trying to have all the right answers. Rather, it is consistently and authentically expressing patience, empathy, understanding and continued support.
Actively Listen and Acknowledge
One of the most useful support mechanisms the leaders can provide is actively listening for understanding and acknowledging your employees/ experiences through tough times. Presently, some may feel stressed financially or may be concerned about continued employment. Others may feel deeply affected due to the cultural events of the day, while some could be exhausted and fatigued from the many COVID-19 realities society has been confronted with. When you think about it, as with the Open Door Policy, being available to listen and acknowledge peoples’ experiences are among the strongest aspects of leadership on any given day.
Overcommunicate and Check-in
When it comes to companywide communication it is important to assume as little as possible. Since we do not know what individuals are experiencing nor what each person’s needs are, the goal in company communications during times of crisis, panic, fear or uncertainty is to offer the facts that you have confirmed and then set the expectation for follow up briefings.
For example, since we are still dealing with a great number of uncertainties relating to COVID-19, sharing a message that outlines how you’ll proceed organizationally is most helpful: “Our business will remain remote for at least 30 more days with limited product or service offerings. Before the end of the week we will share via email the guidelines on how to operate within these expectations.”
Actively Align Your Organization
Alignment, in this case, has less do with your company’s strategic plan and the most recent profit and loss statement and more to do with establishing a shared common language, for example, so people can comfortably discuss racism, if needed, in the workplace, or address concerns they have about remaining safe at work through COVID-19. Having training by HR or outside resources that coach on topics like listening to understand, combating personal biases, and supporting co-workers in meaningful ways is helpful.
Frankly, this is a lot of work, and it can be really hard to get it right. As you strive to support your company, allow yourself grace to make mistakes. Just be sure to include a large, diverse group of advisers (official or otherwise) when making a plan for continued action.
Simply Ask, “How Can I Help?”
The often overlooked action step when reaching out to help another, either personally or as an organization, is the act if simply asking, “How can I help?” Much of the time, you’ll get a response that will help you avoid accidentally offending or further irritating someone in need of support and will instead learn the specific kind of support that is most meaningful to the person in need.
Acknowledge and Absorb Current Events vs Denying
Of course, we are no longer solely referring to COVID-19 as the major social challenge of the day. Within the last few weeks, we have all heard of protests in one form or another, which has now taken place in all 50 states throughout the US, as well as in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries.
More than the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has once again, and rapidly this time, proliferated across the country with one abundantly clear message: end police brutality against African Americans or protests, in all of their forms, will continue. How this manifests within the workplace will also proliferate in a variety of ways depending on where in the country you are.
A successful formula for leaders in your organization when dealing with societal unrest or social health pandemics, is to not resist discussion and emotional dialog within the organization, but to absorb it in a controlled fashion. That is what part of this article encourages leaders to do.
Denying that these issues exist or forbidding discussion of these issues between employees is truly a fool’s errand. Rather, acknowledging the events of the time and allowing an appropriate forum, guided by HR or an outside resource, for dialog coupled with patience, empathy, understanding, and continued support is the wisest approach to offer.
Signs of Stress Within the Workplace
Workplace stress is a constant; it is not unique to the times in which we live. There has always been stress from work reduction and the fear of being laid off or overtime due to reduced staff, increasing pressure to produce at high levels, difficult supervisors, home-based stressors combined with workplace stress, and so on. It is when we bake together these common stressors with societal unrest as we experience today, due to COVID-19, protests on the news and in our streets, and the economic concerns due to a slowing economy, that we begin seeing the signs of fraying in our employees.
Understanding the common signs of stress in our team members is truly the first step in engaging with our team members where they’re at in a way that is meaningful to them. So, listed here are some common signs of stress that can also manifest themselves in a variety of other ways as well.
- Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
- Apathy, loss of interest in work, reduced work production and increased errors in work
- Feeling tired or fatigued throughout the day
- Difficulty concentrating for extended periods of time
- Muscle tension or headaches, sensitivity to light
- Stomach or other health problems
- Social withdrawal within the workplace
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope (which translates to showing up to work having already consumed alcohol or drugs)
Remaining aware of these common signs of employee stress, as well as other ways stress may manifest in people, helps curb the impact to the workplace when action is taken sooner rather than later.
Outside Cultural Stressors Brought Into the Workplace
Is it fair that we ask employers to aid employees’ well-being in response to events that are completely out of the employer’s control? No, it is not. However, that is the reality we organizational leaders are faced with during these times. It is important to acknowledge that, although critical to our time and to society, many of these social challenges, which will always impact the workplace, are not new.
Political, social, and cultural issues, including the likes of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo Movement, the gender gap via inequalities of pay, to more general political divides, given employees’ varying Republican or Democratic leanings, are all matters that infiltrate the workplace. Without showing itself outrightly, these issues can directly impact the emotional focus and social equilibrium in your organization.
If disregarded and not addressed with staff, continued public social turmoil or disturbance can lead to internal challenges, including prolonged emotional employee stress, ineffective team collaboration, strained work relationships, reduced productivity across the board, and an increased chance of physical altercations. Note the statistics that reflect how the last few months of disturbance have reshaped the workplace.
- 88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the past 4-6 weeks.
- 69% of workers claimed this was the most stressful time of their entire professional career, including major events like the Sept. 11th, 2001 terror attacks, the 2008 Great Recession, and other events. Every demographic, including adults over the age of 55, rated COVID-19 as the most stressful time.
- 91% of employees working from home reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress.
- 43% of employees have become physically ill as a result of work-related stress.
- 62% of workers reported losing at least one hour a day in productivity due to COVID-19 related stress, with 32% losing more than two hours per day.
- 70% of workers agreed that employees at their company are significantly less productive because of stress and anxiety surrounding COVID-19.
Source: Ginger, through Business Wire reporting.
Additional Resources That Outlines Leadership Roles
We do not pretend that all of the answers you need are within this article. As we provide you with the best tools possible, we feel that there are other helpful articles that can guide, coach, and inform leaders and employees alike as we navigate these waters.
- Harvard Business Review: U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism
- Harvard Business Review: To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings
- Curiosity at Work: How to Support Your Employees During a Global Crisis and Everyday
- eSkill: How to Manage Civil Unrest and Protests at Work
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): COVID-19 Employer Information for Office Buildings
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Employees: How to Cope with Job Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Lane Powell: EEOC Says Employers Can Require COVID-19 Testing
- Help Guide: Stress at Work
- The American Institute of Stress: Workplace Stress
You will not have all of the answers, and what you provide your employees will not be enough. The fact is, these times require so much attention and emotional expense from us all that it is difficult to imagine any employer or leader having all of the right answers at all of the right times. Offering clarity, resilience, and support to employees is less about owning a treasure chest of endless resources or being perfect and much more about being authentic in your expression of concern, interest, empathy, and patience.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to determine the wisest course of action for your team members. Although there is no magic potion for successfully navigating through tough times, focusing on your employees’ well-being is, simply, good for business. Use these tools, determine what your team needs most, and expand on these concepts.
The best way to guide your employees through troubled times is to intentionally manage the crisis at hand, maintain professionalism and productivity, minimize financial losses and other tangible harm (such as employee attrition), and effectively acknowledge, defuse, and reframe, within the workplace, the energies from an extremely difficult time in our society. This is a one-day-at-a-time leadership moment, and it is important to not be focusing solely on next month or next quarter when today is where your employee’s need you the most.