“I’m doing at least three jobs daily, sometimes simultaneously,” lamented Sara, a single mother of school-aged children who also has an elderly parent in hospice care.
“Most mornings I am up at dawn to accommodate calls with our staff in Asia so I can handle those before my kids awaken. My twin boys and my daughter are now being home-schooled because of the pandemic, so I try to get them started on academic assignments right after breakfast. It’s not easy though, because the kids aren’t accustomed to working from home and lack the discipline to stay on schedule without my prompting. Add to this the pressure of arranging in-home care for my father who lives two states away, and there are days when I feel like I’m at my breaking point. Unfortunately, those days are happening with increasing frequency.”
I asked Sara if she feels she’s giving her best to the job she once told me she loves. “Probably not, she responded, but I’m giving what I’ve got left and hoping it’s enough.”
With schools closed in over 100 countries to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Sara is one of millions of employees working from home while trying to create some semblance of normalcy for their children in a world that seems anything but predictable. Couple these home-life stressors with the challenges of restructuring work practices that many employees are coping with, and you’ve got a recipe for high levels of workplace stress that can lead to poor outcomes.
A study from 2016 of more than 2,300 people suggests that workers in jobs with high demands and a low amount of control over their environment increase their odds of death by 15.4%.
Working parents aren’t the only individuals at high risk for lockdown stress. Many people living alone and working remotely are suffering from social isolation and boredom, cut off from the daily in-person interactions they may have enjoyed at work and restricted from participating in social events. As one client who lives in Eastern Europe told me, “I can’t remember the last time I experienced the touch of another human being. I’ve stayed in my apartment for more than six weeks, only venturing out for food. Even grocery shopping is stressful, as you try to keep distance from others and sanitize everything you bring home.”
So significant is pandemic-induced stress that the World Economic Forum predicts there will be a second wave of burnout and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020. What will the psychological impact of COVID-19 on your workforce be in six months? What are the early actions that can leaders take to ameliorate these dire outcomes?
Study after study of workplace stress, especially that being experienced during the pandemic, suggest that leaders who actively communicate what they know about the current and future state of the business help their employees feel more informed and empowered. Employee briefings and updates need not be elaborate, but they do need to be frequent.
Based on the impact on your business, consider daily or weekly COVID-19 updates that are shared with your team. These can be done as email blasts or incorporated into your team briefing calls. It’s important to single these briefings out as related to the COVID-19 pandemic rather than bury the update in other communications. This helps employees see the direct connection between what’s contained in the briefing and what they are experiencing day to day.
Your employees may have understood their role expectations six months ago, but things have changed significantly since then. Move up and adjust your midyear or annual review process to focus on each employee and what they need from you to be successful through this pandemic.
Rather than the review being used to provide feedback on past performance, consider engaging in one-on-one discussions with your team to level-set the new reality and underscore your desire to support their success. This gives you the opportunity to discover what employees are able to do well, despite the current circumstances, and where they are struggling.
Keep in mind that even employees who typically rise to challenges may waver under the strain of a continued pandemic.
Foster social engagement
Don’t underestimate the value of an “attitude adjustment hour.” You may not be able to offer half-priced cocktails and a special dining menu, but you can use the power of technology to create a virtual happy hour for your team. Employees on lockdown who feel isolated may especially value time to interact with work colleagues and friends in a social setting.
Survey your team to determine their interests, and allow them to participate in designing the format so that everyone has an opportunity to give input.
Offer a support line
If your company has an employee assistance program, make sure your team understands the services available through that program and has access to resources for psychological support. Sending out a written communication about these services is a good first step. As a follow-up, consider inviting a member of your HR or health services department to a team call so they can speak specifically about the benefits offered and address directly and openly people’s stress issues.
If your company doesn’t have an EAP, work with your HR department to source the mental health services and support information that are available in your local community.
Keep in mind that even employees who typically rise to challenges may waver under the strain of a continued pandemic. Your own perspective and positive mindset play a role in how you help your team manage through this time period. This may not be the new normal, but it is the current now, so your leadership makes all the difference in how your team will navigate the trials of the coming months.
This article was first published in Smartbrief on Leadership, April 2020.