By Bob VandePol, MSW
As employees either remain at work or return to work during COVID-19, employers and management face daunting leadership challenges. In ways never before imagined, employees are trusting their leaders’ judgment with that which is most precious to them – their own health and that of their loved ones, their source of livelihood, and their own sense of physical/emotional safety while at work. The stakes are immense.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, business consulting firm Marsh issued a statement that addressed business continuity in a way that went far beyond the typical infrastructure issues such as IT, electricity, supply chains, etc. They talked about people:
|There is no business recovery without people who:|
|Are healthy enough to return to work and be productive|
|Are assured enough of their safety to not feel afraid to return to work|
|Have had their trust in the leadership established so that they desire to return to work|
|Have had their loyalty rewarded so they remain employees over the short haul and the long haul.|
— Marsh Crisis Academy 2003
When employees are healthy enough to return and be productive
Whereas medical health will be addressed below, leaders must also address the mental and emotional health of their teams.
Much has been documented regarding increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance misuse and suicide risk during “Stay Home, Stay Safe”. People are at higher risk for significant emotional pain when they are isolated from social support and lose protective factors such as familiar tasks and routines, a sense of control by using skills to accomplish goals, and being able to enjoy hobbies. Often this stress leads to anger and the need to aggressively defend opinions.
A predictable work schedule can have great therapeutic value if leaders can establish and maintain a healthy culture where:
- It is OK to acknowledge some emotional vulnerability and ask for help.
- Colleagues “offer grace” for different opinions and means of coping with stress.
- Momentum can be built by focusing upon what people do have some control over rather than their powerlessness.
Leaders must convincingly cast the vision of a new normal that includes an expectation of recovery. Healthcare professionals unanimously identify how expecting to get better fuels actually getting better. Sensitively communicating an expectation of resilience – both personal and organizational — makes it more likely to happen.
When employees are assured of their safety
Much information is available regarding safety practices and equipment to prevent infection. Leaders must immediately implement those steps and make certain to communicate clearly in ways that visibly demonstrate increased safety. Perception is reality – especially when safety is concerned.
People also benefit from the psychological safety gained from visible leadership presence. When people perceive, correctly or not, that their leaders are minimizing their situation or are helpless to rectify it, they become increasingly panicked and angry. There is tremendous power in calm presence.
When employees trust in leadership so they desire to return to work
Trust of leadership and a desirable organizational culture are also at risk. When people face one threat they tend to become hypervigilant and perceive other threats – both real and imagined. Conditions are ripe for hostility and blame with the organization’s leadership positioned as the most convenient target.
Allegations of blame need not be accurate to be powerfully destructive.
Obviously, the middle of a crisis is not the time to begin developing trust. A history of trusting relationships prior to the crisis is highly predictive of post-crisis outcomes.
Employees look to their leaders for:
They want to know that their leaders have expertise or are willing to access it. They need to know leaders “know their stuff” and are tough enough to handle the stress of this crisis. Leaders can express emotion but must be perceived as confident in the organization’s capabilities to succeed.
Employees must trust that their leaders will tell them the truth, keep promises and abide by ethical principles.
Trust is multiplied when employees feel that their leaders care about them as people, have an emotional investment in them and view them as more than what they produce.
Employees deserve to have their loyalty rewarded
People have choices, and leaders wish for their organization to represent a desirable place to belong. Responding poorly can lead to the costs of attrition, litigation, increased workers compensation claims, reputation damage and diminished morale. Nothing supports loyalty more than having a leader really be there during the most challenging times of one’s life.
Bob VandePol, MSW serves as Executive Director for the Pine Rest Employee and Church Assistance Programs which provides Critical Incident Response services to business, organizations, schools and universities as well as faith communities.
Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7548 or email@example.com.