COVID-19: Staying Right Side Up in an Upside Down World
COVID-19: Staying Right Side Up in an Upside Down World
06/3/20 Laura Gibbons
Life in general can be challenging, but add in a pandemic, and it can feel like our world has turned upside down. With quarantine, our roles have become more crisscrossed than ever before – many are working, parenting, teaching, and more in a new environment with less access to resources.
Workplaces had to adjust quickly to this pandemic with transitioning employees to work from home, moving to remote services, creating safety plans for essential workers, preparing for return to work in a safe manner, and adapting to managing a workforce that looks very different.
COVID-19 has affected both our work and personal lives and we continue to navigate this uncharted territory. As we reopen and return to work (or continue a new way of working), employees and managers need to prepare for the stress, emotional, and mental health issues that the workforce may be under.
Staying right side up in an upside down world represents our desire to feel grounded again and regain some control in our lives, as personal control is a stabilizing force for many.
COVID-19 has affected our lives in many ways. And although we have this shared experience – the COVID-19 pandemic – our individual experiences and reactions may vary. Some people may experience certain reactions immediately after the event while others may think that they are fine for a while and then begin to notice changes weeks later. COVID-19 is unlike other events because it is ongoing and is not a single event. Both immediate and delayed reactions to crisis are normal and it is important for us to understand what our colleagues and ourselves may be experiencing.
Common reactions to crisis
Reactions to crisis can be physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral. Physically, one may experience headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, fatigue, changes in sleep patterns, and increased heart rate. Emotionally, they may be more irritable, anxious, depressed, nervous, sad, overwhelmed, uncertain, fearful, guilt, numb, or grief. Mentally, one may become more forgetful, confused, suspicious, disorganized, change in attitude, and hyper-vigilant. Behaviorally, one may be withdrawn; have angry outbursts; changes in appetite; increased use of sugar, caffeine, alcohol or drugs; changes in grooming habits, and loss of motivation.
Individuals may cope differently during a crisis due to several factors, including:
Past experiences and resilience. Past experiences have a major influence on the way we perceive a situation, react, and our belief system that we can bounce back. If one feels more positive, hopeful, and capable, they are likely to flex their resiliency muscle to cope with new or challenging situations.
Multiple stressors. From stressors that were already present prior to COVID-19 to adding in additional stressors as a result of COVID-19 – working from home, e-learning with kids, children out of school, disruption in social and family interactions, canceling of ongoing activities, and additional restrictions – can hinder overall coping skills as one’s stressors continue to compound at a level that is outside their norm.
History of mental health conditions. If someone has a history of anxiety or depression, they may likely have more intense reactions and increased symptoms during these uncertain times.
Need for control. Some individuals are aware of their significant need for control and try to hold on tight while others are more flexible. COVID-19 has been notorious for taking away our control making some feel uneasy, uncomfortable, or even helpless which increases stress and anxiety.
Family and social support systems. One’s family and social support network is important during this time to feel connected and supported, even if it looks different. Those who do not have a strong support system may have a harder time coping during crisis and may feel alone. Individual’s religious/spiritual beliefs shape values and perceptions of life and can provide strength and comfort even when church, clubs, hobbies, gyms, volunteering, and other activities that once filled us up are less accessible.
Grief and loss. Grief and loss may feel more intense during this time. When a crisis occurs, past losses can start to resurface. They may also find loss in disappointments. Many have not been able to experience or participate in milestones such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, births, anniversaries, vacations, and even funerals or celebrations of life to say goodbye to loved ones. The picture once envisioned has been altered significantly, and the grieving process endures.
In addition, there may be employees who have experienced COVID-19 up close either by contracting it themselves, a loved one being infected, or may even know someone whom more sadly passed away from it. They also may have a loved one in the hospital or in a nursing home where they cannot be with them because of restrictions. People may also feel a loss in their own sense of health safety and may be more worried when they do not feel well, “what if it is COVID-19.”
Employee changes in the workplace
With a crisis, there may also be effects in the workplace and with employee productivity. Employees may feel more agitated, have increased absenteeism or tardiness, inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, increased incidence of errors, tendency to overwork or underwork, conflict between employees, employees being more reactive, or ongoing frustration.
Leaders must be more cognizant of today’s landscape and be ready to listen, understand the many complicating factors, and be mindful of how to respond to encourage improvement.
Not business as usual. Unfortunately, we are not returning to business as usual. As weeks have turned into months, many have adjusted to a new normal with the transition to working from home. Now, employees have or are planning to return to work. However, as we return to work we may bring with us some new baggage. Although some may be eager to return to work, some may not be ready due to the fears or concerns they may have of the virus, as well as having to adjust again.
As we return to work, the workplace may now look different – from changes in workstations, to meetings from your desk rather than a conference room, new sanitation protocols, and continuing to have to interact in more remote ways – with colleagues, clients, customers, etc. Some employees may be back in the office while others have not returned. Some employees may be working different shifts or days. What we once knew looks very different.
Try not to personalize things. Employees may be more reactive with their comments and actions due to their issues with stress, frustration, and feeling out of control. Listen for themes in what they are saying and ask them directly what they need and reassure them you are here to support them. Management will need to extend more patience and tailor support to each employee’s needs.
Ability to adapt. Management’s ability to adapt to on-going changes, managing in new ways, and adapting to new ways of doing business will be essential. If you thrive on structure and routine, pay close attention to how you are responding to all the changes at work. Management will need to set the tone in the work environment and be able to reframe the change and challenges into opportunities for learning and growth.
Strategies for the Workplace
The overwhelming themes heard from employees when discussing return to work are safety and open and honest communication.
Employees need to feel safe. Employees need to feel safe to return to work and to be productive and positive employees. Management needs to communicate the organization’s COVID-19 preparedness response and control plans to reduce employee exposure to the virus. Be descriptive of the policies, procedures, and standards put in place and reference CDC guidelines, as well as local and state guidelines. Make it clear what is expected of all employees to ensure each other’s safety.
Create an effective and ongoing communication system. Ongoing communication will be important for employees to not only receive information, but to provide feedback as well. Actively listening to your work group and their needs to feel safe and maintain productivity will be important to incorporate into your plan. This will provide reassurance that “we are in this together” and “we will get through this together.”
Like any relationship, validating employee feelings and showing empathy makes employees feel heard and understood. Remember, the future of work is the future of the workers’ wellbeing.
There are many unknowns and so adapting to the “Next Normal” appears to be more descriptive than the “New Normal” because it better describes the ever-changing situation at hand and prepares us to move through the necessary stages of adjustment.
Be flexible. Management needs to see their plans as fluid and be prepared to be flexible if the present plan is not working. Providing flexible work schedules, remote work, accommodations, and enhanced work environments where possible will be things to continue to consider.
Remain visible. Being visible to employees even if some staff is still working from home will be vital. We miss having a baseline for individuals that we are used to seeing on a day-to-day basis. To keep connected, check in with employees that you have not been as connected with and ask them how they are doing and if they need additional support. Letting employees know that you care about them, appreciate them, and value them goes a long way – especially during stressful times.
Find ways to connect with your workforce no matter where they are. Here are some ideas:
• Plan morning or afternoon huddles to check in with teams
• Add in virtual fun – connect with employees on non-work related items to increase the comradery and the normal socialization we would have in the office
• Provide a forum for employees to share ways they have adapted and thrived. We learn so much from each other and can feel encouraged and motivated in a new way
• If back to work, have outdoor meetings where you can have social distancing
• Provide employees permission to take breaks throughout the day. Have virtual or socially distancing mindfulness or yoga sessions, and encourage more active breaks whether working from home or in the office
Celebrate what you have accomplished. Do not forget to celebrate what your team has done. Many organizations had to move quickly to accommodate stay at home orders, implement work from home systems, and find the best ways to continue to service clients and customers in more remote ways. This was no small feat. This is an opportunity to acknowledge and praise your workforce for their teamwork and resilience. When you build a resilient team, they do not see crisis and change as insurmountable, they adopt a can-do attitude, see the possibilities, and embrace new opportunities.
Use humor. One of the healing agents we often overlook is humor. Humor can combat fear, comfort, relaxes us, reduces stress, spreads happiness, and creates optimism. During these times, we need to have permission to smile and laugh and so sharing humor with your staff can be good medicine.
Importance of self-care. It is important for employees and leaders to incorporate appropriate self-care during this time. Getting adequate sleep, eating nutritiously, practicing mindfulness, getting out in nature, exercising, doing a hobby, asking for help, and other activities that brings one joy are important to one’s own self-care. Encouraging the workforce to practice self-care and being more patient and helpful during this time will be important as individuals try to balance the new and changing demands of work, home, and health.
Utilize the EAP. Although employees may have varying degrees of adjusting there may be some who are having more difficulty. Referring to the EAP is a great first step for employees to find effective ways to address issues and develop helpful strategies. The EAP should be a resource in company COVID-19 plans to remind employees that there is support available and that this is why the EAP is a confidential program provided to employees at no cost.
Leaders are not immune to the effects of COVID-19. With more responsibilities upon managers during this time, leaders may find themselves more fatigued and overwhelmed. It will be important for managers to be aware of their own feelings and reactions to all the changes, and the impact on their own personal and work life. The EAP offers management consultations to supervisors and managers to discuss workplace issues, especially during this time, as well as using the EAP for their own well-being. Remember, if you don’t secure your own oxygen mask first, your effectiveness in helping others is severely compromised.
With any crisis, mitigating the impact and consequences in the workplace will help keep employees engaged and performing well. Providing an environment where employees feel safe and supported through this pandemic, and the stressors that come with it, will be important for the workforce and the overall organization.