The long game of getting everyone back to work needs many players. But the most crucial players of all are the people doing the work, wherever they do it. Government-led protocols and distancing risk assessments rightly grab our attention - but the less deliberate work of keeping each player on side is just as urgent.
Our initial exposure to the public health crisis of COVID- 19 led to a global crossroads and a dramatic worldwide mobilization. Speed was crucial. Death was an ever-present threat. Decisions about which way to turn were based on partial knowledge and a host of barely understood factors. Workplaces shut down, people went home: everyone sat on the sidelines, waiting.
The New Reality
The main game was on television every evening with dark tales and death tolls, but the sideshow was playing out at home where we were forced to stay. We became accustomed to many things. The first was the dread of living with the ever-present, oft repeated imminent fear of dying: the second being the fear of being ill. The unknown permutations of the virus added to that fear, from how it is contracted to how it manifests itself, in who, for how long, when and with what outcomes. The array of unknowns shocked us and motivated our initial lockdown compliance.
Other unknowns flourished in this fragile environment. How do we perform our work in the ‘new’ space of the box room? How do we manage to adjust the headsets/monitor/laptop/chair so we can sit safely? How do we home school, balance home life, keep the house clean, the fridge full, the bills under control, get exercise, shop, drive, dress, socialize and - never mind staying safe - how do we juggle all these challenges and also, stay sane?
Constructing the altered reality under such speedy conditions required a canny balance of skills and a ‘can do’ attitude often hitherto unused. For the most part, we made it work, and even learnt new things about ourselves and others - and the fridge freezer’s weird de-frosting noises. This is called resilience; it is a variation on mastering new challenges, known for decades as ‘getting by’. We need to gather and value what we learnt during ‘getting by’, once we are by.
The View Ahead
As we move into Autumn, the shock has subsided, and we are clearer about many of the unknowns. But it seems a decade since the heady, mask-free, pub-full, hugging and hand shaking antics of 2019. Although we may not be sure how to assess every risk out there, we are becoming adept at gathering our resources, working together across silos and embracing the limited and leveraged current challenge that is a slow, managed return to work, when that step comes.
The Health and Safety Authority facilitates health and safety at work across all industries and our protocols, guidance and on-line tools have proven highly successful and useful across a broad range of hazards. The psychological area of psychosocial risk management - so that people feel capable, comfortable and motivated to work - requires a more nuanced, sensitive approach, adapted for the worker context, whether that be at home, in a workplace or a mix of both.
It is understandable how desperate many are to return to their workplace. It is understandable too, how many are desperate not to return. The reasons are too many to go into. However, the two approaches often co-exist in the one person. This internal dissonance is a well-known psychological phenomenon. It is a causal factor in stress because the contrary pulls on our emotions and thoughts use up energy which would otherwise be used for productive endeavor. It quickly becomes an active anxiety, a self-imposed cognitive lockdown.
The Role of Leaders
Leaders of people at work have a huge role in this next phase. Good leadership can help unpick these energy-sapping anxieties and bring a soothing calm to the mental chaos. Those who help us to reduce our internal stress gain our trust and we attach to them and their goals more easily. The more authentic, problem solving, leadership we each experience, the more likely we are to follow the next steps that leader suggests.
It is understandable too, how many are fearful of the physical work system upon return to work. What will happen? Where will we sit? How will the physical re arrangement affect our social arrangements? Whom will we have to talk to? However, cavalier we may have been pre COVID about our colleagues and the value of their banter, a re-calibration no doubt occurred after sixteen weeks with the offspring/ in-laws. Now, even Billy from Accounts will prove popular company upon return. Those in charge who openly –and safely - facilitate good social interaction at work now will make the return smoother for all.
Everyone knows that the lay of the land influences the ways people engage. That is why we have interior design and layout experts. Our previous work landscape was probably designed with this in mind: keeping people working together harmoniously is aided by how and where we sit, eat, walk, or wander, whether in the workspace or otherwise. A fear among returnees that new social distance measures will bring about social psychological fragmentation, break up teams, separate friends and create less clarity of role and function for everyone are not far-fetched fears. Often, we react to our expectations as though they were real, so ensure your players know what to expect, and do not leave gaps for wild imaginations to be filled by fear.
The Importance of Empathy
Ambiguity is also a causal factor in work-related stress. An empathetic, realistic leader can transform the misty bleak fog of ‘not knowing’ into a clear focused vision of what is what. We have all reached the peak of our tolerance for uncertainty; those in charge must design, rationalize and explain a road map back to work and within the workplace, reduce ambiguity and show a clear pathway to the psychic and thus the social arrangements going back.
Finally, what might be less easy to understand or accept, is the emotional baggage most of us will carry back to work with us. Pent up emotional frustrations, anger, resentment, bitterness, and aggression are not best treated by being distanced from our reality. They do not obey edicts and have little attachment to protocols. However, trauma and crisis bring them about and they hang around unless processed.
A good leader knows and acknowledges this, and is not afraid of strong negative emotions. Nor does he or she race in, in a transparently self-serving way to apply a simplistic wellbeing ‘solution’. Yoga sessions, relaxation rooms or teatime treats have their place as health promotion add-ons, but they don’t reach into the places where psychological upset lurks.
Creating a Positive Environment
A true leader’s role is to contain the negatives and allow them be expressed. De-personalizing emotions, letting them find expression without becoming ammunition to get at others, is the key. It takes time, so time must be allocated. It may need professional coaching or mediation or indeed, for some, short-term solution focused one-to-one session. For most, debriefing is already embedded in the work systems through the Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) or Occupational Health. A culture where individuals are oriented towards small solutions to address, re-frame or further assess negative attitudes and communicate an agreed way through them is the most desirable for better learning and increased performance.
Communication is Key
How a good leader ensures the healthiest, happiest return to work will differ, but all should develop both formal and informal routines on a weekly or bi weekly basis. All should communicate regularly especially at the start of any change initiative, be present and be visible.
Short and long term planning – properly communicated to all - is important, but always with a clear admission that we have to flex and pivot as our environment changes. Long term has shrunk as a concept. Now it means 3 to 6 months.
Tools can be explored for bringing novelty to the workplace – use digital and blended learning to reinforce what was learnt while WFH - and on-site individual and group sessions can also be accommodated – distanced - focusing on performing after duress and keeping energy levels up after the return.
Conclusion: Why do we Follow a Leader?
In summary, what makes any of us volunteer to attach our goals to those of another? Why not go it alone and ignore the ‘bosses’? When we believe that it is in our own personal interest to be attached to, or be aligned to another’s goals, we follow. We trust them due to evidence-based analysis of their past behavior. After that, the secondary element is faith in them due to their relational engagement with us -and ‘people like us’ (colleagues). You are being watched, so be seen to behave in a healthy and safe manner consistently and then talk about it and encourage talk about the new practices, highs, and lows.
Leaders are best when they have personal experience of a good leader, so those who have not had that experience, be aware of your shortcomings here. Some high performers are loathe to reflect – the excuse of being too ’busy’ – and this is another shortcoming. Only through real reflection on our own follower emotions and attachments can any of us become a truly good leader.
The HSA (with the State Claims Agency SCA) hosts a free on-line psychosocial risk assessment system, incorporating an online survey tool called Work PositiveCI. For information visit www.workpositive.ie