By now, most companies have had significant aspect of their business disrupted in some way due to the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus and rising cases of Covid-19.
As employees everywhere are working from home full-time, or at least much more than usual, a lot of people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress, with noticeable impact on their ability to focus on work.
A study published in early March surveyed HR leaders across 650 companies and found 64% of their employees were experiencing reduction in productivity due to the coronavirus outbreaks. Three weeks earlier, the same pool of respondents reported that 70% of employees experienced “small or no impact at all on productivity” caused by the virus. That’s a massive change in just a few weeks.
At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we’ve been thinking a lot recently about how leaders can help make virtual work more effective.
Here I will focus on what leaders can do about the stress this situation is causing, and the resulting lack of focus that comes with it.
The way a leader handles employee stress and anxiety goes a very long way in making things either better or worse. Ignoring a stress-inducing situation won’t do any good, and in most cases will actually increase people’s sense of concern. At the same time, panicking yourself is extremely counterproductive, as people automatically and naturally take on their leader’s emotions. The successful leader through any crisis situation is one who stays cool under pressure, and finds creative ways to help others do the same.
To understand the phenomenon of crisis more deeply, let’s dig into what our brains do during a crisis situation—and what leaders can do to help everyone focus.
To simplify the science a little, there are three levels of threat in the brain, which I simply call level one, two, and three.
Level one is characterized by being alert, but not necessarily alarmed. Imagine you’re in the wild and you hear a lion in the distance. Your brain is more alert to unusual sounds, but you’re not that alarmed as yet, and you don’t feel as if you’re in any immediate danger.
Level two is when you notice the lion is closer to you. Say you see a lion in your neighborhood. You are now highly alert, listening to every noise, and quite alarmed, with your heart rate increased, but you’re still able to function okay.
Level three is when you see the lion running toward you. Now both your alerting (orienting) and alarming (panic) systems are going crazy. Two systems that use a lot of metabolic resources—your prefrontal cortex for digesting new information and your stomach for digesting food—both suddenly shut down. The result is that all rational thought goes away, and you run.
The challenge with this new health scare is that people are classifying what should be a level one threat as level two and level three threats. What should trigger washing your hands, reducing social interactions as much as possible, and avoiding touching your face has turned into stockpiling food, mass buying of masks, and hearts racing with every sneeze and news alert. This isn’t surprising, given the uncertain nature of the situation and how the brain naturally reacts to uncertainty.
However, it’s simply not adaptive for everyone to be at a level three threat and assuming the sky is falling all the time. It means we risk making highly irrational decisions, due to a shutdown in executive function. It means we’re primed to run. These decisions can make the situation worse for ourselves and for others around us.
Right now, leaders can do a lot to help their people manage this stress, and thereby improve decision-making, collaboration, creative thinking, and even help lift up everyone’s immune systems by reducing stress levels, which can only help a workforce or any community.
Our research has identified three levers here: creating a greater sense of certainty, helping people gain control of their choices, and emphasizing shared experiences and shared purpose to bring people together, at least virtually, around shared goals to offset the impending threats. Here’s a look at each:
With the outside world being so uncertain, what can leaders truly do to lift certainty? In the absolute sense, nothing. But the brain doesn’t just work in absolutes; it works in relatives. Which means a little more certainty than you currently have can go a long way.
Leaders need to be laying out multiple contingency plans and scenarios, letting their people know they are preparing and taking team wellbeing into account. The fewer so-called open loops people have, the easier it is to focus. This is a result of what experts call the “Zeigarnik effect,” which explains the way incomplete tasks continue to come to our attention. Leaders must be clear about their working at home policies, travel policies, and where employees can go with any questions. Even defining who is on a contingency team to help think about the changing workplace can help instill more certainty. Any relative increase even in the perception of certainty can be helpful.
When it comes to autonomy, any time a stress feels out of control it tends to be overwhelming—a level three threat. Yet when we find a way to gain some sense of control, an overwhelming stress becomes a manageable stress.
Leaders should think about ways to give their people a greater sense of control over-day-to-day work. Give your team members and employees options of where to work, and check in with them to make sure you’re aware of their situations. Some may be able to work from home, and some may want to move closer to frail family members and keep working from there. Perhaps people may need to choose when to work, given that more and more now have kids at home with school closures. If the situation gets a lot worse, another approach is to give people the choice to take unpaid leave for a time, or to work half time for a period. When we have a choice between options like these, it makes the situation much easier to navigate.
During the government furloughs a few years ago, one organization I know gave people the option to stay at work even though they wouldn’t be paid to use the time to catch up on things that were long overdue—cleaning out systems, filing, organizing, and so on. A surprising number took the organization up on this offer to productive ends. What might have been stressful—being told they simply couldn’t work—became a time of reflection, recalibration, deeper thinking, and re-organization. A little autonomy can go a long way.
Finally, a third category leaders should work on is called “relatedness.” When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, I spent more time with all my neighbors, and we shared frozen food and meals with one another. The current coronavirus pandemic is a tricky one, as that natural instinct to bond in a crisis is being thwarted by social distancing order.
As a leader, you can still navigate this uncertain climate and find ways to encourage connection and collaboration. This sense of relatedness is about sharing experiences and goals with other humans. The good news is you can get this effect through online interactions, especially where cameras are involved. Smart leaders might use this time to significantly increase the use of video conferencing in their teams and organizations. They can encourage their employees to spend regular quality time with loved ones via platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Webex. They can help bring their people together around shared goals, in smart ways, to create a sense of community.
Times of crisis can also bring new meaning to work. The sense of purpose in delivering a needed product or service in a time of crisis can bring people together. I’m quite sure the folks who make Purell hand sanitizer, Kleenex tissues, and even the next Netflix series, are experiencing high intrinsic motivation at the moment. Leaders can frame their work and company mission in support of the community no matter what field you work in. In times of crisis, this kind of bonding over shared prosocial goals can be a big help to offset the threats from a lack of certainty.
Whatever happens from here, one near-certainty is that we are likely to see the bulk of employees globally experiencing high levels of stress, and much more stress than is helpful. This will hurt their sleep, their digestion, even their immune systems, right when they need to be healthiest.
Leaders who focus on creating a sense of certainty, autonomy, and relatedness will be helping their people focus a little better. Ironically, one of the best ways to do this is simply to get back to work. Routines help us maintain a sense of normalcy and certainty. Doing our jobs, while still remembering to wash our hands, may be just what the doctor ordered.