In 2015 / 2016, I worked on the Syrian crisis response in Lebanon, evaluating psychosocial support programmes for refugee children in Lebanese schools. As part of that, I conducted research on the most effective ways to support communities experiencing high levels of stress and trauma. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, I wanted to share some of what I learned, as it seems highly relevant to anyone trying to support their staff through an incredibly stressful time.
Research shows that heightened stress and anxiety have a direct impact on productivity and employee engagement. Anxiety inhibits a number of the basic cognitive and bodily processes we need to perform at our best — it can lead to poor decision-making, uncharacteristic emotional outbursts, an inability to sleep, reduced appetite, disengagement and lack of motivation, and decreased creativity and empathy.
Normally, when an employee is experiencing a high degree of emotional stress, we can recommend the right support services and take action to alleviate the stress (if it’s caused by work-related issues). But the challenge posed by COVID-19 can’t be met by simply supporting people at the individual level — we are all experiencing some level of stress and anxiety right now, so leaders need to take action at the community-level.
Research shows that there are five effective interventions when you’re trying to support a community experiencing crisis and stress:
This means both psychological and physical safety. Right now, leaving the house means going into an environment where you can potentially be infected with disease. Our workplaces are no longer safe environments and we are working remotely (if possible). We may have lost the safety of knowing whether we’ll have a job in a couple of months time. How can you promote safety in a situation which is, to a large extent, beyond the control of you and your employees?
The most important thing you can do as a leader is create psychological safety for your employees — this means a safe space for them to share their experiences with one another and the permission to let others know if they are struggling. The best way to do this is to display your own vulnerability. This seems counterintuitive — in times of crisis we want to show up as strong and dependable and not display any weakness. But this gives the message to your team that they need to do the same, even if you are telling them otherwise. Admitting when you’re struggling and sharing what you’re doing to protect your mental health gives them permission to do the same. They’ll follow your actions not your words.
We are surrounded by alarming messages at the moment — the media is tracking death tolls and measures to restrict the spread of the virus are being extended. Economic uncertainty is at an all time high. It’s natural that anxiety is also high. Promoting calming is key to helping people regulate their stress and anxiety levels. There are three things you can do to help:
First, be cognisant in your messaging to your staff; make sure you share helpful facts and advice and stop the spread of rumours or sensationalist information. It is natural that the virus comes up in every conversation at the moment but limiting negative and panic-inducing talk can be helpful.
Second, give your employees the tools they need to self-regulate and calm themselves. Stress shows up in different ways for different people, what might be triggering and upsetting to some can be completely neutral to others. Stress management is the same — what might work for some will have a detrimental effect on others. There are a few measures that research shows can have a calming effect (and ones I’m using daily to maintain my own sense of calm): mindfulness, yoga and breathing exercises. Take time to practice calming with your team as a group. Scheduling a weekly mindfulness session for your staff is great but it’s still something they have to do outside (and on top of) their normal work. Instead, try practising grounding and calming techniques with your team. For example, you could use a short mindfulness practice at the beginning of team meetings to focus everyone’s attention on the present moment.
Third, let people know that if they are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, these are normal responses to an incredibly tough situation. Research shows that when someone sees their response as normal, they can better manage and regulate that response. If we meet people’s distress with messages like ‘cheer up’ or ‘keep calm and carry on’, it can make them feel that their response is inappropriate and invalid. This will only reinforce their sense of isolation if they are already struggling.
Social connection and strong relationships have been shown to be one of the best predictors of successful coping in communities dealing with highly stressful events. Working remotely right now means many of the moments of connection, fun and social interaction we experience as part of our everyday work lives have gone. We need to make very intentional and planned efforts to nurture those connections. This means scheduling in time for team fun, like sharing a coffee and talking about things that are not work-related. But most importantly, each of us needs to take on the responsibility for checking in with our colleagues and asking them regularly how they are doing, letting them know you are here for them and showing up with compassion when they’re struggling. Actively sharing learnings, coping strategies and resources is also really important.
This is a crucial steps that’s often overlooked. An individual’s and community’s sense of how well they can cope with the stressful situation directly impacts their chances of overcoming it. If people can feel a measure of predictability and control over their situation, it increases their sense of self-efficacy. Breaking down large problems into smaller ones and giving people the opportunity to collaborate together to solve them increases their sense of ‘collective-efficacy’.
In so far as possible, when you’re making decisions and setting strategy, encourage your teams to play an active role. This is not the time for c-suite teams to barricade themselves in a war room and keep their staff wondering about the company’s future and whether they’ll have jobs. This will only increase employees’ sense of helplessness and lack of control. You need to regularly communicate with and actively consult your employees when you’re making plans and figuring out the best way forward. You also need to be willing to adapt your expectations of your team as they adjust to new working situations and constraints instead of continuing to expect people to operate in a ‘business as usual’ way.
There’s strong evidence (see below) that retaining hope in the face of highly stressful situations is crucial to successfully coping. Communities that remain optimistic tend to have better outcomes because they avoid falling into despair or resignation. Research shows that one of the best ways to instil hope is to provide people with the resources they need to overcome the challenge; financial support, for example. Many companies facing financial distress might not have the resources to do this right now, but leaders can do two important things: 1) set a realistic and clear vision for the future — when people are faced with a challenging vision of the future it’s less distressing than no vision at all and will prevent them from catastrophising and 2) identify, amplify and proactively build the strengths of your team. Make an extra effort to celebrate small wins, call out what they do well, acknowledge their positive qualities and demonstrate your faith in them and yourself.
These recommendations are based on the following research paper: Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence.
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