Managing Employee Anxiety and Fear as Final COVID-19 Workplace Restrictions are Lifted

Managing Employee Anxiety and Fear as Final COVID-19 Workplace Restrictions are Lifted

By Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW and Bob VandePol, MSW

Amid vaccinations and changing CDC guidelines, many organizations are attempting to create a “new normal” for employees after 16 months of working remotely or following strict guidelines requiring employees to remain separated from one another for everyone’s safety. As employers work to make wise decisions for their workforce, it is important to recognize what is happening emotionally and mentally for many workers.

According to a survey presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2021 Annual Conference:

  • 64 percent of the adults were anxious about someone they loved getting COVID-19.
  • 49 percent of these individuals were also anxious that they would contract COVID-19.
  • The number of people reporting the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental health rose from 37 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in 2021.
  • The number of people drinking also rose from 14 percent in 2020 to 17 percent in 2021.

These statistics mean employees are experiencing higher levels of fear and anxiety and are more likely to use alcohol as a means of coping than they were a year ago.

It can be helpful to think about the experience of emerging from the pandemic as similar to the experience many military personnel have when returning home after deployment to war zones according to Adam Horwitz, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan.

When deployed to high-risk areas, military personnel have a set of extreme precautions they utilize to limit the danger of injury or death. This is similar to what happened during the pandemic when people needed to wear masks, socially distance, work from home, and limit contact with everyone including loved ones to ensure their safety and the safety of those they loved.

When military personnel return home after living in conditions requiring high vigilance to remain safe, they often have difficulty letting go of the protective measures they meticulously relied upon while deployed.

The same is true for many individuals as the pandemic restrictions ease. As people attempt to let go of safety measures like masks and social distancing, the anxiety they experience goes up. This “new normal” initially feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, and perhaps even dangerous.

Fight, Flight, Freeze is an automatic reaction to stress.

When the body is stressed or anxious, it automatically kicks into a state called “fight, flight, freeze.” This unique state activates the parts of the brain which instinctually react to protect us and deactivates the parts of the brain which think through choices and consequences before making decisions. Fight, flight, freeze is extremely helpful if a car veers into your lane of traffic and you need to make a split-second decision about what to do. It is not as helpful when you’re sitting at your desk attempting to make decisions about the best way to complete a project that’s due tomorrow.

Think about emotions as the current in the river you’re swimming in. As long as the emotions (current) remain relatively calm, you can swim in the river without much difficulty. However, as your emotions rise (the current gets stronger), swimming becomes more difficult, you begin to feel scared or overwhelmed, and you, like most people, want out of the river.

Some people scramble out of the emotional river onto the bank of rigidity.

People who scramble here believe that if everyone would just do things the way they believe things should be done, in their timeframe, without questioning, everything would be okay. The rigid employee:

  • Has very little tolerance for ambiguity or change
  • Is often very demanding

For others, as the emotional current rises, they scramble to the bank of chaos.

These individuals let go of attempting to manage anything and assume a posture of “whatever is going to happen will happen so why bother trying to change anything.” Individuals on the chaos bank may:

  • Miss deadlines
  • Underperform
  • Create frustration for those around them—especially individuals on the bank of rigidity

In the midst of workplaces filled with people experiencing higher levels of anxiety and coping by becoming rigid or giving into chaos, leadership is both essential and incredibly challenging.

With anxious eyes riveted, people will take their cue from those they recognize as leaders and the ramifications will echo through all levels of the organization. Studies indicate that how people view those who lead them is a strong predictor of resilience trajectories.

This situation offers tremendous opportunities for increased focus, collaboration, and a confident identity as well as high risk for team fragmentation and collapse. Trust in leadership is in jeopardy.

Leaders must visibly exhibit that rare combination of competence and compassion.

Those words are not mutually exclusive but can be difficult to communicate at the same time.

  • The messages “I know my stuff and am confident we will figure this out,” PLUS “I care about you as a person” must be in evidence simultaneously.
  • When in doubt, lead with compassion. Doing so helps to mitigate peoples’ anxiety and coalesce a focused community.
  • Leaders must present themselves as comfortable being uncomfortable, realistically confident in their own and their team’s abilities, and as fully expecting recovery through adaptation.
  • They must convincingly use plural pronouns and future-tense verbs – “We will.” “We can.”

Leading by Acknowledging, Communicating, and Transitioning.

The acronym ACT describes a communication process of Acknowledging, Communicating, and Transitioning amidst a crisis that can be helpful.

A. Acknowledge and name the stressors inherent in returning to work amidst COVID-19.

  • Leaders who avoid, minimize, or deny the presence of a stressor immediately lose the trust of their people. Doing so now adds anger to the fear.
  • Demonstrate the courage to use real language that specifically names the stressor and its ongoing tensions.
  • Acknowledge the fact that COVID-19 is unprecedented, information has been inconsistent, and that many strongly held, polarized opinions exist.
  • Acknowledge that those different opinions can lead to increased fear, frustration, intimidation, and conflict — none of which contribute to productive accomplishment of shared goals.

C. Communicate pertinent information with both compassion and competence.

  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. When highly stressed people lack information, their imaginations can be creatively and dramatically destructive.
  • Effective delivery of information provides a sense of order that has a calming influence as it reduces the likelihood of rumors, builds trust, and provides a sense of order that supports moving forward.
  • Clearly communicate the regulatory standards to which you must adhere and the recommendations of external experts that you expect all to follow.
  • VERY clearly communicate your expectations that whereas differences of opinion exist, your organization expects people to communicate in a professional manner that respects others, focuses upon teamwork, and offers flexible grace. The workplace is not the forum for political or ideological soap boxes.

T. Transition toward a future focus.

  • Communicate an expectation of recovery. Focus upon immediate next steps and outline how ongoing information will be received and delivered. Let people know you are committed to listen. Messaging should reflect “This is what we know at this time so this will be how we move forward today. We will adapt to new information as it becomes available.”
  • Not everyone will transition at the same pace. Communicate flexible and reasonable accommodations as people progress to a new normal.

People want a workplace safe from both the pandemic and from ridicule, colleagues with whom they enjoy working, and an opportunity to use their skills to meet missional, professional, and personal goals. Lead them.

Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW obtained her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa in 1995 and has worked at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services since 1997. She is currently the Southwest Regional Director in addition to managing the Telehealth Clinic and providing trainings as a part of the Pine Rest EAP program.

She is the author of two books and is deeply invested in walking with individuals struggling to find meaning and purpose in the midst of the struggles of their lives. She enjoys speaking at events and is passionate about providing educational services which equip individuals, leaders and organizations to proactively address mental health issues.

Jean started her career as a teacher after earning her BA in Education from the University of Northern Iowa in 1985. She was a teacher for 10 years prior to beginning her career as a therapist.

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.

Mr. VandePol is a former chair of the Workplace Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the public-private partnership championing suicide prevention as a national priority.

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 bob.vandepol@pinerest.org.

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