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In times of great strife, great leaders stand out from the crowd. As a leader in your respective organisations, you are expected to get results but you are also expected to lead your workforce. Leadership in times of emergency means keeping calm and being an exceptional communicator.

Great Leaders are Made, Not Born

Bruce Fairchild barton

Let me just state first that I am just a humble health and safety advisor. I am not a CEO and I am not Leadership Guru and I am not particularly important. But as a Health & Safety Advisor (currently unemployed with lot’s of time on my hands), I feel that it is incumbent upon me to at least reach out to Leaders in times of health emergencies. To simply offer whatever advice I can, hoping you will find it useful.  In this article, I discuss the role of leadership in times of emergency especially as it pertains to the COVID-19 outbreak.

At this time, many of you are working from home and so too are many of your employees. As you are fully aware, there may now be a real economic impact on your business but there is also an effect on your employee’s health and wellbeing.

Effects of Stress and Anxiety – The Silent Killers

All you have to do is google COVID-19 or scroll down your social media pages to see pages and pages of doom and gloom. Reports focusing on increasing numbers of cases worldwide, government mass quarantines etc. Your staff, many of whom sitting at home, are reading these reports and quite naturally…are freaking out!

Stress and anxiety

They are worried about becoming ill and dying, they are worried about their families and friends. But most of all, down deep, they are scared about their futures and how they will earn money to feed their families.

This worry is causing massive stress on the body and mind that, in some cases, can lead to rises in coronary disease and other health problems. Certainly, it is causing unseen mental health issues. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety. These health conditions really are, silent killers. Depression and hopelessness are the leading cause of suicide too. 

Later in the article, I will provide you with a good resource to read on the physical and mental effects of stress and anxiety on yourself and your staff. However, for now, let’s stay focused on practical ways to reduce the anxiety and stress your people are facing. 

What Actions Should I Consider as a Leader?

Now is the time to stand out as the great orator and communicator. To be the Winston Churchill of your company. To raise hopes, build rapport and help your staff and other stakeholders understand that the world will not end with this emergency. To WIN!

Winston Churchill

People want and respect leaders that care about their well-being and are proactive in showing it. Now is the perfect time to step up. Here are some suggestions of what you can do to help assuage people fears.

  1. Consult your company health and safety experts or retain a professional to advise you. This professional advice option is for situations where your HSE people (if any) may not have the knowledge and skills on health concerns. Many are trained in safety only and may not have a good grasp of employee health and wellness.
  2. Armed with good advice from your health and safety professionals, if all possible, call your home-based people on the phone (avoid email, it’s too impersonal and it may not be read). If you cannot call each and every employee, try to meet with them individually (best option, but keep in mind social distancing). Perhaps the safest option is to record a video and share that instead. Communicate as often as you can. Be sincere. Show compassion. Ask about their families, their concerns and worries. Calm their fears and let them know you (the Leader) care about them as individuals. Trust me, this simple act will pay off huge employee relationship dividends once the crisis is behind us. 
  3. Find out who in your employ may be in the highest risk category for developing serious respiratory illness that could lead to death. Older people (45+), asthma sufferers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) sufferers, people with serious heart conditions, a history other respiratory diseases, diabetes. More can be found at the CDC page here. This is also your opportunity to develop a good health surveillance program but consult with H&S professionals first. Prioritize your attention to keeping these people safe and well informed.
  4. Call your customers and suppliers. Do it often. Be as informal as possible and be certain to come off as a caring and compassionate leader that is in charge of the situation. Explain what you are doing as a Leader of your company, for your people. 
  5. Update your own knowledge on health and wellness, especially as it pertains to this crisis.  If you haven’t already done so, consult a professional to risk assess your workplace and advise on practical solutions to keep your critical people safe. 
  6. In my opinion, it’s not enough to hand out masks and put up signs. Train your people to wash hands with soap and water for no less than 20 seconds perhaps every hour. Make certain to have plenty of soap and disposable hand towels available. Show them. Be visible. Walk the talk. Walk your worksite frequently and speak with people. Intervene politely if you notice them wiping their faces with bare hands, for example. Maybe prepare a YouTube video of yourself washing your hands or some other proactive health & safety behaviour.
  7. Review the CDC and WHO websites and remember to analyze the situation with proper care. To put things in perspective, notice things like fatality rates as a percentage of cases. Or cases as a percentage of the population.  Communicate this carefully. People are still getting the bulk of their news from social media and the mainstream news, and it’s not always very balanced reporting. Your role here is to help them see the facts and understand that there is a very high likelihood of survival, even if they do come down with the virus (remember the priority list of people who could face the highest possibility of serious complications. Communicate with them carefully)
  8. Encourage your people to spend less time online reading or watching videos about COVID-19. If they must look, then recommend the CDC and WHO pages.  
  9. For your at-home personnel, offer them some online skills or knowledge development courses to keep them busy, and their minds occupied. Boredom will lead to stress. Boredom will also lead people to reach for the phone and start clicking on news reports on the virus. Keep their minds busy and help them to sharpen their skills. Coursera.com and Udemy.com offer loads of good courses on all kinds of career development topics. Either let them choose or pick some relevant courses out for them. I recommend that your company offers to pay (obviously set a budget). Most are not very expensive.

Reducing stress and anxiety is the goal here.

The Internet and TV news are bombarding us with bad news every day and this is the source of stress for many. 

Aside from taking precautions, that we are already aware of (i.e. social distancing etc.), there is very little we as individuals can do to end the crisis. There really is no good reason to be glued to the internet all day watching doom and gloom. All this will do is raise anxiety levels. Convince your people (and yourself and family) to disconnect or reduce exposure to the “news”. Find a happy place.

People who are happy and relaxed will have fewer health problems as a result of too much stress and anxiety. Find a way to convince them. Learn about how stress and anxiety can affect the mind and body and communicate your wisdom to them.

Work with your health and safety advisor to develop some at-home or at-office strategies for your people to reduce stress levels. Be sure to communicate these strategies to your people. Regularly.

How stress affects the body

Stress is the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. During a stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. You’ve gotten ready to act.

What Are the Consequences of Long-Term Stress?

Long term stress occurs (obviously) over a long period of time. Here we are mostly concerned with medium-term stress over a 2-4 month period, being made worse by network news. Ongoing, chronic stress, however, can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including:

As you can see, stress has both physical and mental consequences, often overlooked. Learn about these conditions from your Health Advisor and develop and share awareness programs to your employees. Be open and ask employees to share with your HSE team any symptoms they may be having. Let them know you care and will work with them to reduce stress. Follow some of the advice above, especially on limiting or minimizing access to the stressor (news).

I do hope you found this article interesting and I wish you all the very best during these hard times. Keep calm and carry on!!

“It is no use saying ‘we are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

Winston Churchill
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