Managing stress in times of uncertainty

At our heart, Sova is a team of occupational psychologists and we use our knowledge of this domain to help organisations optimise the relationship with employees. As psychologists we understand how people are likely to behave at work, but also more broadly, how peoples’ quality of life is impacted by stress, crisis and unexpected events. With this in mind, we asked Nicola Tatham, Head of Product Solutions, Chartered Occupational Psychologist and practicing Psychotherapist, to share her insights about how to guide and support employees during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What can we do to support our teams in these uncertain times?

There is no question that Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. From supply chains to social gatherings, nothing has been left unchanged. As organisations are forced to make quick decisions to enable business to continue, workers are being challenged in ways never seen before, placing added pressures and stresses on employees at every level.

Much is being written about how remote working may become more commonplace as we emerge from the pandemic, but it is important to recognise that for most people they are not just working from home under normal circumstances, they are at home during a crisis, trying to work, parent, provide care or living in isolation. Mindful of the stress this is likely to cause, I wanted to share some evidence-based advice about how best to support your employees during this time.

The Health and Safety Executive identifies six common areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These include:

  • Demands – employees not being able to cope with the demands of their job
  • Control -workers feeling unable to control the way they do their work
  • Support – staff not receiving enough information and support
  • Relationships – individuals experiencing trouble with their relationships at work, or feeling bullied
  • Role – staff not fully understanding their role and responsibilities
  • Change – people not engaging when a business is undergoing change

Even in the most harmonious workplace, it’s clear to see how easily these factors could creep in. If we then look at this through the lens of times of severe disruption, it’s probably safe to assume that several, if not almost all, of these factors are being experienced by your staff at any one time.

The role of a line or team manager and their awareness of these stress factors is extremely important. There are positive steps that can be taken to address each area and it’s also helpful for the individual to help mitigate their stress by taking ownership where they can, to alleviate some of these stress factors.

Demands:

  • Tasks that were previously easy may be more demanding, therefore time needs to be spent mitigating and adapting to the changes. For instance, setting aside time to familiarise yourself and colleagues with new technology/ ways of working and encouraging people to support each other with this process.
  • Recognise that what people are facing right now is not normal and you understand that they feel like the demand has increased, but have conversations to ensure they feel supported by you and the broader organisation.
  • Have regular conversations with your team to consider workloads, work patterns and their working environments. Be mindful of practical changes you can make to help alleviate concerns and to deal with issues before they become too troublesome.
  • Think about the demands being placed on your team outside of work; parents who need shopping and support; children at home; looking after sick dependents etc. Encourage workers to be honest about the demands they face so that plans can be put in place in recognition of these challenges. We are all human and we are all facing these types of challenges.

Control

  • Support your team to help them find ways to take control in what is otherwise an uncontrollable situation, for instance:
    • Create a dedicated area for working in
    • Getting dressed so they feel like they are at work
    • Setting clear boundaries about when they are/ aren’t available for work
  • Help colleagues feel more in control by providing regular catch ups with updates about any forthcoming changes etc.
  • Now is the time to place trust in your team; think about how you can give them more autonomy over their work and when they do it.
  • Create opportunities for teams to share concerns and ideas about what is/ isn’t working for them.

Support

  • Lack of support adds to stress, so managers must prioritise this, especially during times of uncertainty.
  • Make time for 1:1s including regular feedback/ debriefings/ reviews of how they are finding their current working situation (making changes if and when possible) and encourage the team to support from each other.
  • If staff have caring responsibilities, let it be known you understand and look for ways for other team members to support with certain aspects of work they may not be able to deliver.
  • Be mindful of broader anxieties people may be feeling about health and economic uncertainty and give space for people to share their concerns.
  • If you feel someone needs more support than you can offer, think about what other resources may be helpful and signpost them accordingly.

Relationships

  • Recognise that most people are used to being with colleagues. Reduced daily contact can be a really difficult challenge to deal with, especially for those who live alone.
  • Encourage regular phone calls, not just emails, and create opportunities to socialise – a 30-minute conference call for nothing more than a chat and a giggle can go a long way.
  • Celebrating success is more important than ever, so be sure to seek it out and shout about it.
  • Remember that people are different, and some will need more contact than others. Also, don’t forget that any ‘difficult relationships’ between team members will still be there when working remotely. They may be less visible though so check in with people in this regard.
  • Acknowledge that people have relationships outside of work and whereas in ‘normal’ situations it’s relatively easy for most to separate them from work, right now that divide will be less clear. Day time calls and interruptions from children are unavoidable. We always worry about our loved ones and right now, this will be even more acute.

Role

  • Being clear about what is expected from employees is simply good business practice, but it’s important for managers to be clear with their team about how this may evolve as the situation changes. For instance, do the employee’s usual working hours still apply? Or does some degree of flexi-time need to be agreed in line with added demands in the home? Do you still expect the same output from them? Does the business need to refocus or pivot in their service offering and therefore needs employees to change their focus?
  • Seek feedback and perspectives from colleagues up and down the chain, reviewing practice and policy as you go.
  • Work with senior leaders to ensure you take a joined-up approach across the business to ensure there is clarity of expectation across the business.
  • Be sure to communicate any changes to employee roles quickly and clearly – the rumour mill is counterproductive at the best of times, but never more so than in times of uncertainty.

Change

  • Colleagues will inevitably be more isolated than usual, potentially ruminating and catastrophizing, so provide regular updates about any aspects of organizational change.
  • Offering frequent briefings, which include an opportunity for colleagues to contribute, will help increase the control they feel over the situation and therefore reduce some of their stress.
  • Many people resist change, so consider steps you can take to support colleagues through this, empowering them to contribute positively to the change process.
  • Look for the positives in the situation and continue to adapt and show your team how you are doing this.

Now more than ever, quality of line management and leadership is critical. Whilst we may all be working virtually, experiencing stress and uncertainty, this could well herald a new era of leadership – more human, authentic and caring.

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