By Stephen Koss

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a great amount of responsibility on leaders to guide an increasingly worried and uncertain workforce through the health hazards that are the result of the ongoing crisis. Apart from potentially lethal physical health implications, the impact on mental health can be equally devastating. Leaders, who therefore, ensure that employees’ physical and mental well-being are top of mind will play a vital role in the way their organizations and workforce successfully navigate and emerge from this global situation.

While the current crisis has varied impacts on organizations across different sectors, the single common factor for everyone is that life is interminably more stressful.

Essential frontline workers are working harder and faster against the backdrop of an invisible and potentially deadly risk. Beyond keeping people physically protected, employers must also manage staff burnout and the stress that comes from the pressure of performing during a crisis. Many will have feelings of guilt if work prevents them from being able to care for their own family, especially if this means that they must choose to self-isolate from loved ones for fear of transmission.

Meanwhile, those now working remotely face the mental stress of isolation and the physical challenges of new workspaces – dining tables and bedrooms – that are barely fit for purpose. Employees may also be juggling work commitments with increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – and worries about family and friends who are older, immunocompromised, or absent.

For both groups, supporting well-being effectively requires a holistic approach that addresses mental health and engagement with the psychosocial considerations in this new working environment.

Herein lies an essential question: Where should leaders be focusing their efforts in the coming days, weeks, and months?

Prioritizing and supporting overall health

Beyond all your physical protection measures, make sure employees know where to find information, guidance, and support for mental health. Maintain open communication channels to hear how employees are feeling and, most importantly, listen and respond. Consider establishing a hotline or central point of contact for employees – and develop in-house channels and hubs to respond promptly to employee questions and concerns.

However, do not rely on people to self-report. Two-way conversations are essential in building trust. It is vital to monitor mental well-being with structured, regular opportunities for employees to ‘check-in’ with their managers and colleagues – and provide peer support. Share techniques to stay calm, present, and focused. Reinforce the importance of being physically active to reduce stress and mindfulness for mental clarity.

Make everyone aware that significant changes in a team member’s personality or work quality may be signs that a person is struggling. If possible, turn to data and analytics to identify vulnerable ‘hot-spots’. Put mechanisms in place to ensure at-risk employees are reached out to immediately with empathy and concern – and not just with practical solutions.

Providing clear, concise communications, and demonstrating empathy

Research in Hong Kong after the 2003 SARS outbreak found that increased social connectedness helped offset that health crisis’ negative mental health impacts. For many people, connection with colleagues can act as an important buffer to their feelings of social isolation and disconnectedness. Encourage employees to stay regularly connected through virtual video meetings.

With employees feeling overwhelmed and anxious, ask people leaders to make themselves available to staff to talk about their fears, answer questions and reassure them about work and personal issues.

When people are working remotely, it is more important than ever to routinely check-in, not only about work, but also to see how people are coping. Ask direct questions: “How are you managing? What would you most like support with at the moment?”

Goal setting to galvanize employees

It is hard to find the energy to remain motivated in a time of crisis. Setting a clear and short roadmap for your organization’s objectives will mobilise and galvanize your employees around a common goal. This is also a good time to rearticulate your values, which help keep people grounded in the familiar and give them a pathway for navigating uncertainty.

As you clarify plans to lead through this period of change, align your approach for managing COVID-19 with your broader purpose. Embed your organizational purpose and values into all communications as you share your roadmap across the organization. Provide recognition and ‘shout outs’ for those who are living these values during this time.

Keep communicating, even when you do not have all the answers. If you say nothing, people tend to fill the gaps with conjecture and worry.

Encourage flexibility and foster resilience

The sudden shift to working from home has the potential to derail performance. Make sure employees have sufficient infrastructure, flexibility, and support to do their job to the best of their abilities under the current circumstances.

In these extraordinary times, we need to acknowledge different work patterns, particularly around remote working, and virtual teaming. Empower your middle management – a highly influential cohort – to drive new ways of working.

Consider opportunities to upskill employees and cross skill teams. Provide access to tools and online learning platforms to empower employees, increase organizational capabilities, workforce flexibility and resilience. Employee engagement will be improved where they can form part of an organizational solution.

Preparing to emerge on the other side of the crisis

Importantly, no matter what disruptive forces and how stressful the scenario, humans are at the center of every organization. During the toughest times, the human spirit dictates that leaders will emerge, often from the most unexpected places. To nurture these fledgling leaders in our organizations, our support should be empowering and self-sustaining. We must encourage individual employees to take ownership and accountability for their own well-being – so they come through the crisis more resilient than when they first entered.

As the pandemic continues to unfold, leaders must stay focused on ensuring our employees are not just physically safe, but psychologically and socially supported, so they emerge from the crisis ready to embrace the opportunities on the other side.

Stephen Koss is EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.


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