We have been united by this pandemic in so many ways – supporting our frontline workers, caring for our families, and staying home to save lives. This tragedy has brought out the best in so many of us and brought us together in countless ways (even as we work and live more apart than ever before). But it’s also united us in fear. Pervasive, unrelenting fear of death, illness, of the unknown.
As we start to plan for economic recovery and take steps to re-open, fear is a new frontier that leaders must actively manage. We have a long journey ahead. It’s going to stretch all of us. But we must collectively be stronger than our fears. If fear wins, we can’t. Here are six ways you can help your employees fight their fears as they return to work.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate.
The media is full of terrifying stories about COVID-19 killing people young and old. Sadly, many people have friends and relatives who have died from coronavirus. Fear is everywhere and it is real.
Now is the time to over-communicate. Get into the details. Reach out early and often. Tell your employees exactly what you are doing to keep them safe. Tell them what is happening with their jobs and the company. Even share how YOU as a leader are feeling. In the absence of real information, people will assume the worst (“Are we closing?” “Do our bosses even care?” “Will I get sick if I go back to work?”).
You don’t have to have all the answers. No one does right now. Be honest and transparent. Saying “We don’t know _______. But we hope for _____.” is powerful and will be appreciated by your employees. Keeping them informed may be all you can do in this time of uncertainty, but at least you are showing up and showing you care. Share your fears and listen to your employees fears openly.
Even if your employees are furloughed – talk to them! Send them short videos of what is going on. Write an email. Have their managers reach out. Maintain that all-important connection.
And don’t forget the power of making it personal. Reach out one-on-one. Even if it isn’t something you normally do, make an exception for exceptional times.
- Monitor mental well-being, along with the physical health of your employees.
Uncertainty affects all of us differently. Some people are caring for children who can’t go back to school. Some people are caring for elderly parents who are very vulnerable. Some people have naturally high anxiety. Some people are deeply scared of getting the disease themselves. You just don’t know exactly how individuals are coping. And the stress of being in constant
“fight or flight” mode can be debilitating and depleting.
As we prepare for the new normal of instituting physical health safeguards in our factories like temperature checks, we should also consider how best to monitor and support employees’ mental health as well.
Consider having every supervisor regularly check in with each person and ask them “how are you doing?” Don’t have them ask it as a cursory gesture, but really take a few moments and ask (whether on the phone or in person) how they are really doing. People are struggling with so many new and unexpected hurdles in their lives right now. It can help lessen the burden to be “seen and understood.” And if your workplace has employee support programs or counselling available, now is the time to ensure everyone knows how to access help.
Stay in close touch with your supervisors and if there are a few people that need something extra, figure out if you can help. It may be as simple as a phone call to show them that you care and that you want to be there for them. But monitoring the mental well-being and reaching out to those struggling is not only a good thing to do for your workplace culture, it is the most human thing you can do as a leader during these challenging times.
- Do (and be seen to do) all the right things on safety.
Staying safe from COVID-19 is not an easy task. It is an invisible enemy. But you should strive to make the steps you take to keep people safe extremely visible. Safety is most likely part of your core company values. And this is the surest way to combat employee fear. If you don’t show everyone all the ways you are working to keep them safe, not only will your values be called into question, but people may not want to come to work.
When you do something to advance workplace safety, make sure everyone knows about it. Better yet, make sure they see it. This is a great place to use the power of short videos to get the word out. Now is the time to double down on safety, even if it is expensive or inefficient. We need to so the right thing and be seen to do the right thing.
- Be understanding towards employees who aren’t ready to come back to work.
As excited as we all are to re-open and get back to work, there will be people who simply aren’t ready. They are too afraid to resume normal life. Sure, you can make them come to work. But if you order them back “or else” you must consider the cultural price you will pay for doing this.
One terrified person in your workplace can poison the well with fear. If you can’t allay their fears one-on-one, perhaps you should consider giving them alternative work to do remotely. If you can’t give them remote work, perhaps consider a grace period for them to return to work once they feel safer. These are unprecedented times and we will have to do unprecedented things to keep our people with us on the journey.
We will undoubtedly lose some great people who decide not to return to work. But we will be far better off if we are seen to offer compromise and options to help people during this tough transition period. We can never go wrong when we lead from a place of understanding, empathy, and respect.
- Remember the little things.
Do you normally have an office lunch you can’t have anymore? Can you buy your staff lunch remotely? Can you send them a dozen donuts? Can you recognize on all-staff emails the amazing things people are doing to support each other? Maybe these things are out of reach normally or feel awkward, but these are extraordinary times. I guarantee that investing in doing extra things to show that you care and that you are there (even for laid off employees) will be more appreciated today than any past office picnic ever was. These little things include just reaching our one-on-one to ask how someone is doing and thank them for their hard work, dedication, or just hanging in there.
- Fight fear with inspiration and possibility.
Crisis is scary but it also creates opportunity. An opportunity to learn new things, to pivot, to bond. Don’t get me wrong, nothing can make good of this horrible situation, but we can work to make it better. We can help our employees see challenges to overcome that might also have silver linings.
This is where your leadership comes in. Inspiration is the antidote to fear. Your employees need thoughtful, inspired leadership that helps them see the light. Perhaps start with your own search around how to reframe coronavirus not as something happening TO you, but as something happening that is a challenge FOR you to overcome.
Share your personal journey and thinking. Tell people how you are finding the light at the end of the dark tunnel. Inspire them by communicating how we can try to rebuild our post-COVID world stronger and better. This is the time for our words to be powerful, to raise people up. Help them see possibilities. Give them hope. Remind them that we will get through this.
Stories are also powerful. They are how we, as humans, make sense of the world. Tell your people real stories about the good, positive things that are happening to help counterbalance all the bad news. More than 2,000 Ohio manufacturers have stepped up to make protection equipment for frontline workers! If that’s not a powerful good news story I don’t know what is.
Together, we make the things that keep people safe. We make the things that run the world. That’s important. And a real reason to be proud about getting back to work. If we can make our pride bigger than our fear, we will successfully navigate this crisis together.