Most of us have become so vigilant about watching for the physical symptoms of coronavirus that we figure if we don’t have a sore throat or 104° fever, we’re OK. But we’re not, really. What we’re going through, as a daily experience, is abnormal. The global pandemic has upended our work lives, our personal lives, and shattered our sense of security, safety and–well–normalcy. The symptoms of stress and disorientation can be more stealthy, but they need urgent care too.
Nine in 10 Americans say they are concerned about the coronavirus, while half are worried about keeping their jobs and paying their bills, according to the new Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index. Forty-three percent of those surveyed report that their emotional well-being worsened in the last week.
“We’re grieving. Collectively,” observed David Kessler, one of the world's foremost experts on healing and loss, in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review. “We feel the world has changed and it has.”
With all the bad news, here’s some good: Americans trust you, their employers (68%), far more than they trust the federal government (53%) to look out for their best interests, reported the Aixos-Ipsos survey.
Business leaders have a unique opportunity to support their workers in new and creative ways–in fact, they are counting on you to do so. Here’s how to start:
Walk in their slippers. Consider the challenges your employees are facing. Single people working from home might feel isolated, parents with toddlers may feel overwhelmed, older workers have reason to be fearful for their health. Try to be accurate in your empathy, since not everyone is reacting the same way. If your team is small, call each member individually and ask how they are doing and what support they need to do their job well. If your team is large, consider sending out a short survey. While you might not be able to solve all their challenges, you can at least acknowledge that you know they are facing them.
Keep cool. Emotions are contagious, particularly on the job, explains Brandon Smith, an expert in organizational health, in his Tedx talk on emotions in the workplace. If you exude calm, your workers will feel calm–or at least calmer. If you stay positive, your employees will feel more secure. The most contagious emotions are the negative ones, so keep your gripes to yourself and make it clear to all managers that this is no time for bitch-fests. Says Smith: “Be an emotional booster shot for others.”
Open up. Being cool does not mean being cold. Your mantra could be: “I’m not OK. And you’re probably not OK either. So let’s be in this together.” How? Start meetings with a thoughtful question you might deem too touchy-feely for normal times: How are you doing? What are you feeling? Where are you stuck? Feel free to share your own struggles, too. Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of Bravely, an employee-coaching firm, told From Day One: “This moment in time has given me permission to ask my team personal questions that two weeks ago may have felt awkward asking or spending a large chunk of time discussing,” says Sheehan, who often holds meetings with her new baby on her lap. “I feel an enormous amount of gratitude to be able to share my own personal struggles, which are many, and listen to theirs as well. I am starting to get to know people in a newer way and it feels quite wonderful.” An added benefit: “Doing this will help you to stay engaged, rather than check out to manage your stress.”
Be a gifter. Send your workers a gift that lifts their spirits by showing that you’re thinking about them. Some companies have simply given cash, especially to workers on the front lines. But symbolic and practical gifts have an impact too. A foam roller is a WFH best friend. But a package including any of the following would likely be welcome: bubble bath, tea, an aromatherapy diffuser, a snack, a bottle of spirits, a succulent plant (Quarantine succs!). If your team is logging long hours and your revenue stream is strong you could spring for something more lavish, like a massage gun for aching backs, noise-canceling earbuds, or a challenging Lego set for homebound kids.
Designate a no-work hour. Declare, say, 12 pm to 1 pm, a protected time when no calls, meetings or work are scheduled, and employees are encouraged to rest and recharge. Urge employees to get out for a jog, log on to a streaming yoga class, or walk the dog in a green place. Or just have a Zoom pizza party.
Be concrete. These days, reality = uncertainty. You can help by communicating regularly and quite specifically to those who depend on your guidance. “Great leadership comes with clarity, quick action, and personal connection,” says Judy Levitz, founding director and board president of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center in New York City.
Emphasize ergonomics. With so many of us working from the kitchen counter, dining room table or even the front seat of our car, our bodies are sure to start suffering. “Your home office is an ergonomic time bomb,” Inc. warned readers. You can help by ensuring that workers have the tools they need to be efficient and also the information they need to protect their backs from aching and their wrists from succumbing to repetitive stress. Offer them information about ideal desk posture, screen height and a few exercises that they can do throughout the day to combat muscle aches and pains.
Explain health benefits in detail. With most workers feeling anxious and overwhelmed by the details of the crisis, the last thing they want to do is get on a call with their insurance company to find out whether an out-of-state trip to the ER (for those sheltering with friends or relatives) will be covered or how many therapy sessions they are entitled to. Create a crystal-clear fact sheet that lays out their benefits and explains deductibles, out-of-network vs. in-network, and who to call for more information. Remind them of traditional forms of help, like employee-assistance programs (EAPs) as well as new technology supporting mental health.
Take care of yourself. Looking out for your own well-being will create a model that your employees can follow, while keeping yourself from burning out. “The only way I could manage this effectively was to take care of myself first,” says Levitz, who is also a practicing psychoanalyst. At the start of the pandemic, Levitz decided what she needed to do to feel safe, as well as what her organization needed to do to protect their clients. That will help create resilience and endurance as the crisis plays out. The CEO of HP, Enrique Lores, told the Wall Street Journal that he wants his workforce to seize opportunities, but also to pace itself. “We need to realize this is not going to be a very short-term thing.”
Lesley Alderman, LCSW, is a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist and journalist. She has written about many of life's modern stressors for Medium and the New York Times.