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BILL HOWATT: Time for leaders to show their skills

Bill Howatt writes that a psychologically safe workplace prepares employees and leaders to understand that words and actions affect the employee experience, which has a direct effect on innovation.
Bill Howatt writes that a psychologically safe workplace prepares employees and leaders to understand that words and actions affect the employee experience, which has a direct effect on innovation. - 123RF Stock Photo

With COVID-19 now a global crisis, the world as we know it is rapidly changing. Organizations are changing how they operate in real time and governments are putting in place action plans to mitigate risk to Canadians’ physical and financial health. Many organizations are also making plans to help their employees cope with the current situation. How long this condition will go on is not clear, but likely longer than a couple of weeks.

The longer this pandemic disrupts society, the more it increases the risk for employees to experience toxic levels of stress, isolation and fear. Leaders can’t assume all employees will be able to manage the stress that will mount as this pandemic evolves. In crisis situations, many will be able to adapt and do fine, but not all will be able to cope.

In a crisis of this magnitude, we’re all in uncharted waters. Many leaders may find themselves over the coming weeks dealing with situations they may have never foreseen or been trained to deal with. Now would be a good time for all leaders to consider tuning up their basic crisis intervention skills.

Leaders don’t have to become crisis management experts. They just need to be aware of the potential for crisis and mentally prepare themselves for how they will cope and deal with any crisis that may arise.

I often say when teaching crisis management, “The wrong time to prepare for a crisis is when you’re in it.”

We may not want to think about it, but with all the turmoil and stress that may come if this pandemic drags on for weeks or months, increased stress may result in an increase in the number of employees who may experience:

  • domestic violence
  • work refusals
  • trauma (e.g., watching a loved one die)
  • anxiety and fear that results in irrational thinking and behaviours
  • grief and loss
  • suicidal ideations and attempts
  • anger outbursts
  • loss of contact with employees, unsure where they are
  • addictive behaviours
  • distraction and inability to focus on work

Not that all of the above will happen, but based on history, when people are in crisis situations the wear and tear can result in behaviours and decisions that can be damaging to self and others.

Following are basic behaviours that can help prepare a leader for crisis intervention.

Self-care. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your physical and mental health daily. Be clear that you’re not invincible to stress. Long hours and high levels of stress can catch up once the adrenaline has worn off. If this drags on for weeks or months, pacing yourself will be important. Ensure you get enough sleep, nutrition, rest and some basic movement to burn off stress hormones.

Be calm. It’s important to have perspective of what we can and cannot control. What needs to be done in the future will be different than what needs to be done today. Today is about saving lives and keeping employees calm as you and your senior leaders attempt to chart the path forward. You don’t need to have all the answers. Breathe, slow down and allow yourself time to make decisions. Being calm can help maximize your cognitive decision making.

Show empathy. It’s critical to demonstrate that you appreciate whatever challenges an employee is facing and finds stressful, as they are real for them. Don’t dismiss or belittle; your job is to be supportive and demonstrate that you care.

Anticipate. Be in active discussion with your team daily. Anticipate the kinds of challenges and crises employees may face based on how the COVID-19 crisis evolves. Be clear that this is a dynamic time and things will constantly be changing.

Listen. When interacting, be committed to listening and asking questions. Resist the urge to talk at employees. In times of crisis it’s beneficial to create conditions where employees feel safe to share, and trust they won’t be judged for feeling vulnerable and scared. This will help give them confidence to ask for help when they need it.

Get facts. Take time when possible to get the best available facts to solve problems and make decisions. In crisis situations there may not be second chances. That’s why it’s valuable to make factbased decisions.

Engage. Don’t assume employees working at home are all OK. Stay actively engaged with them by checking in and encouraging them to share daily updates as to how they’re doing. Keep sending out a consistent message that if they need help or support they should ask, and you’ll do all you can to support them.

Promote supports. Ensure all employees are clear of all the supports you have in place for them, such as employee and family assistance programs, online therapy such as Internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, paramedical psychological services, crisis lines, mental health supports, peer support, online courses and video podcasts. Put all this into a simple, user-friendly document and keep sharing it and talking about the supports in place.

Be open. Be open and accessible; accept feedback; and be willing to adjust behaviours when appropriate.

Be flexible. Accept that what was important before may have been replaced with what’s important now to keep employees safe and operations running.

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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