Freedom Ahead? Not So Fast!

Right back at the start of this pandemic, you might remember all the talk of ‘flattening the curve’. Australia’s goal at the time was not to eliminate COVID-19 altogether, but to keep infections at a low enough level that it wouldn’t swamp the healthcare system.

For a while last year, we did so well – especially with closing our international borders – that we ‘flat-lined’ the curve rather than flattening it. But the delta virus, despite our best efforts, was too strong, and we’re now back to the original strategy (but with the huge advantage of an increasingly vaccinated population). This week, New South Wales is cautiously opening up after more than 100 days of lockdown, and we’re about to see just how successful we can be with this strategy.

This new phase of the pandemic – even if it’s a slow easing of restrictions – comes as a relief and joy for many people. But it also comes with anxiety, uncertainty, and many new challenges – especially for leaders and managers, who have to deal with stressed and anxious employees.

Do you really understand their situation?

Don’t assume everybody is overjoyed at getting out of lockdown. Some people are, but many others are anxious about their ‘freedom’ – for example, travelling on public transport, sending children back to school, wearing masks, ensuring unvaccinated people aren’t breaking the law, facing pressure to socialise in groups, and so on.

Even for those who are looking forward, they might have faced a major crisis over the last 18 months. As a leader, you might not realise just how badly they suffered – and might still be suffering now.

Deloitte’s 2021 ‘Global Human Capital Trends’ report found employees ranked worker well-being very high – much higher than executives ranked it – when asked about their most important outcomes over the next three years:

Your people are under pressure.

Many people face challenging circumstances at home. It’s difficult to concentrate on work when you’re worried about elderly parents, a partner who lost their job, a mortgage, school fees, family and friends you can’t visit overseas, or an escalating domestic violence situation. Add to that the stress and anxiety from the pandemic itself: the risk of infection, physical distancing, social isolation, face masks, border closures, travel bans, and concern about vaccines.

To make things worse, some people face the compounding effect of many stresses. It’s one thing to face one or two challenges, when you have time to pause and refill your emotional fuel tank. It’s another thing altogether to be bombarded with multiple challenges from many directions, when you’re constantly running on empty.

Stress in the workplace is soaring, and more employees than ever are at risk of mental health issues. As a leader, you might have been hired as a director, project manager, financial controller, or General Manager – but suddenly find yourself thrown into the role of a counsellor. You’re probably not a trained counsellor, so use the HR and EAP resources at your disposal. But even with those other resources, it’s still your responsibility to lead an engaged, functional, and empowered team.

People in crisis need help.

A year ago, a World Economic Forum survey found 48% of Australian working adults – almost half the population – feared for their jobs in the next 12 months. Statistically, if that isn’t you, it’s somebody close to you. And this was in October 2020, when most of Australia was not in lockdown, and things were looking up.

People in crisis need practical help – for example:

  • Time: Know what authority you have to offer extra unpaid leave, paid leave, carer’s leave, and mental health leave.
  • Flexibility: For some people, flexible working hours are as good as – or even better than – extra time off.
  • Money: You might be in a position to offer money – for example, with a promotion, overtime pay, or taking on a new role.
  • Training: People need new skills and are willing to learn them. That same World Economic Forum survey reported 70% of Australians are confident their employer will provide training for these skills.
  • Connection: Some people need time and permission to just talk to others in the team.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And of course you must work within the constraints imposed by your organisation. But find out what’s possible, ask people what they want, and offer it.

In a presentation for the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand summit in June 2020 – relatively early during the pandemic – I asked HR leaders, ‘What have you done to increase employee engagement during COVID-19?’. This is a sample of their responses:

‘Well-being check-ins’
‘Flexible working arrangements’
‘More frequent communication’
‘Yoga classes, step challenge, virtual wellness’
‘More communication from senior management’
‘Working remotely’
‘Sessions for staff to ask managers questions’
‘Twice weekly Zoom karakia (Māori meeting rituals)’
‘Really focusing on what each individual needs’
‘Support for vulnerable staff’
‘Company-wide online meetings with CEO’
‘Ask managers about their team’s mental health’
‘Weekly Friday virtual drinks’
‘Acknowledged contributions made by staff during lockdown’
‘Permanent WFH (working from home) offered to all’

We’re not over the crisis yet – far from it – so don’t stop doing these things for your people!

Now is the time to be kinder, more compassionate, and more empathetic. You’ll be a stronger leader, and a better role model for everybody else.

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