8 steps to address workplace stress when “reopening” during the pandemic

"Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore." -- Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz.

The world and workplace are reopening. And like Dorothy awaking from her vivid (not covid – couldn’t resist) dream, we’re beginning to realize that work and life aren’t exclusive of each other. If you ever thought you could “leave your work at the door” or “compartmentalize your life” this pandemic has certainly challenged those beliefs. Because, like this virus, anxiety knows no boundaries. Returning to “normal”? Not!  ... but not really. Things will be different, but not completely so. It’s more that now the “light” shines bright on the acts and actors of psychology, exposing shadows ever present, but now in vivid color. There’s going to be a lot more “color” now, in terms of people, their behavior and especially their feelings. And like a child waking from a bad dream, there’s going to be a need to comfort and reassure people at work, even if it’s in their home. Here, I provide a checklist of 8 steps to address workplace stress when “reopening” during the pandemic. (And they apply outside of work – whatever that is – too).

Getting down to work.

Workplace stress, and here I mean the non WFH place, is going to be a real issue for organizations (beyond the sum of individuals) for some time. Government imposed practices intended to limit virus transmission have already revealed psycho-social behavioral issues and conflicts. For some, uniform mandates have been a source of shelter. For others, they've been a source of infringement. To say they've been 'controversial' is an understatement -- especially in these times where everything seems controversial.

As restrictions originally imposed to mitigate the spread of CV-19 are relaxed, responsibility for one’s exposure to the virus increasingly falls to individuals – but especially on leaders of others. While organizations adopt their own policies in light of the pandemic such as those to enforce or support “social distancing” (a term I dislike), individuals will now primarily be responsible for their own “CV behavior” and may experience considerably more workplace stress.

Although stress isn't altogether bad, it almost always is when it reaches high levels. And like never before for most of us, we now live in a world of extraordinarily high stress -- especially in the workplace. Strong, confident, reassuring leadership will be paramount. Fortunately, research in psychology at work reveals practical steps leaders can take to manage varying levels of stress among employees.

Although in most hierarchical organizations (and, yes, your's is) having control is usually associated with power and well-being which can mitigate workplace stress, it’s quite the contrary from the psychological perspective of our “reopening,” especially given that the viral threat hasn’t been eliminated. Think of it like this: whereas in the early stages of our response one person held a gun (like an “ol’ West” sheriff) now everybody has one. (I realize this may not be a PC safe example; parallels to political views aren’t my intention).

Significant workplace stress will emerge beyond those already taxing an isolated, anxious, frustrated and, in some cases, depressed, world. But these won’t always be as obvious as people choosing to self-quarantine or anywhere near as rare as you may think. Psychological effects can be easily overlooked or underappreciated as individuals enter and react, and, of note, appear to adapt to their “new scene.”

As a manager of others, the list that follows includes 8 steps you should take to address the elevated workplace stress of “reopening” during the pandemic. They’re semi-arranged in order of chronological progression, but every case is different. You may need to adapt these steps, both in order and means, to meet your specific circumstances.

Here's what I recommend for managing high workplace stress:

  1. Address the biological facts: Discuss the new scene and how it may increase the risk of transmission. Stress that individuals who believe or know that they have contracted or come into risky contact with someone that has CV-19 share this information with you immediately and take precautions. Assure them that no harm or penalty will be levied for any concerns or self-identification. Do so as soon as possible, before any changes are made that  affect work conditions.
  2. Invite feedback and input: Actively seek others’ perspectivesboth in groups AND individually – as to the risks that may arise and how they could be addressed. People are more comfortable discussing objective risks rather than subjective, or perceived/psychological risks – especially when they pertain to themselves. But do seek psychological concerns.
  3. Acknowledge and address individual differences and reactions: People will feel and react differently to the new scene. They will behave differently, think differently, and of utmost importance, they will experience varying degrees of emotional discomfort. Make no assumptions. Tell your team that you expect and understand (i.e., accept) this --directly.
  4. Empower individual behavior: Give individuals as much control over their behavior as possible. If they are able to fully satisfy their work without coming into physical proximity or contact with others, allow this. Provide biologic (e.g., sanitizer) and psychological (i.e., meditation, behavioral training) resources.
  5. Build a shared mindset: Reinforce everyone’s responsibility to be considerate of others’ potential needs and concerns. It’s best for all to adopt the most conservative behaviors possible (i.e., for minimizing risk). Maintain physical distance. Wear a mask, or at least, ask if doing so would be appreciated. Don’t be a “Covid bully.”
  6. Empathize; just listen, {stupid}: Consider -- or, as I advise in most cases, ask directly how others feel. Listen for feelings and DO NOT JUDGE anyone’s responses. Simply listening goes a long way toward reassuring others, even beyond the actions that may be taken as a result. Scoffing does more harm than coughing in their face.
  7. Monitor and coach behavior: Notice and respond to workplace behaviors – especially those that are different from before the shutdown. People will act in ways that may signal their concerns regarding the environment, others’ behavior, or their own. If your team of 4 goes through 6 bottles of hand sanitizer a week while your peer’s team of 6 goes through 4, maybe there’s something going on? More directly, some may wear a mask, ask others to maintain a 6-foot physical distance, or intensely disinfect their space (hopefully, not the people in it). Other behavior will be much less overt (i.e., increased physical confinement, appearing “too busy” or placing unwavering focus on a computer screen). These, and other signs even more discrete, don’t necessarily mean the individual is more or less psychologically stressed, but they are signs that raise this possibility. Moreover, they will have varying effects on others, either directly (“they’re disrespecting or devaluing me”) or indirectly (i.e., behavioral modeling and vicarious learning). This has to be coached, too. Not everyone that practices CV “safe” behaviors is the victim; passive aggressive behavior has many outlets in times of change and stress.
  8. Repeat with constant vigilance: You need to adhere to a discipline of constant monitoring and reinforcement for two reasons: 1) new ways of behaving take time and practice and 2) circumstances can change at any time for any individual. Some will take to the new ways more effectively than others who will need more coaching. Some will change via means that may be virtually unnoticeable. The source of the change may come from a news report one reads (whether real or fake) or by learning that someone else contracted the virus. In fact, there are many stimuli that can trigger emotional reactions from the mild annoyance to nearly incapacitating anxiety. You should not assume that everyone has successfully made the adjustments (physical and psychological) and that you’ve reached the “end of it.” Because the bottom line is, the “new normal” isn’t normal.
Apparently depressed woman as seen through a window

Workplace stress is complex.

I’m sure I haven’t covered everything you can do to create the safest psychological environment possible. And not all of these will be equally effective for everyone. But it’s a good place to start.

Finally, don’t pretend or assume that you’re an expert psychologist, able to read and effectively handle any psychological situation. It’s generally better to be direct when dealing with psychological issues, than to try to be crafty or super-sensing. If you suspect someone’s experiencing stress, ask – in private - without being confrontational or judgmental. You may just “save their life.”

Be safe. Be careful. Be care full.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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