Addressing the emotional elephant in the room: How to ease employee anxiety about the future

Larry Faragalli
September 29, 2020

If COVID-19 has accomplished anything positive, it’s been the ability to bring communities closer together, including those in organizations both large and small. Despite many of us now working remotely, we’ve taken advantage of tools that help keep us connected, collaborating, and functioning just as well as we would in the office. According to recent research from HBR, some employees have reported even higher productivity levels from home, no longer having to spend time getting ready in the mornings, commuting, or dealing with on-site distractions.

But the silver linings we’ve uncovered in our new normal are not enough to quell anxiety brought on by the pandemic. In order to avoid such chronic stress taking a toll on employees and the business itself, employers should openly address the emotional elephant in the room and take steps to help everyone feel safe and secure, whether they’re working remotely or returning to the office.

The emotional health of your employees matters 

Employee burnout was a reality pre-pandemic, but it wasn’t often a topic addressed by company leaders. Now, the issue is so pervasive that countless articles exist on how to handle work-related stress during a pandemic. Even the CDC provides a list of coping tips for those struggling to stay on track due to extreme stress. It’s crucial that we address the emotional health of our employees because if left unchecked, the physical consequences can be dire. The biggest mistake you can make is to remain silent and wait for your employees to come to you, because by that point, they’re likely in need of far more than a few days off. Instead, let your teams know you understand they’re overwhelmed, underprepared, and completely exhausted. Empathize with them, ask them what they need, and learn how you can help.

Provide greater flexibility 

Recognize that some of your employees are juggling much more than others, especially if they are caring for children or other loved ones. In a recent report, BlueCross BlueShield found that at least 6.7 million of its members are currently acting as caregivers for their spouse or child(ren). “Compared to a benchmark population, caregivers in our sample saw a 26% greater impact of health conditions that could lower their overall health,” the report states. What’s more, millennial caregivers (ages of 24 through 39) appear to be hit the hardest. Drawing from the same BCBS data, CNN notes, “Millennials were 82% more likely to have hypertension, had a 60% or higher increase in anxiety or major depression, and a 74% increase in obesity … They were also much more likely to visit emergency rooms (33%) or be hospitalized (59%).”

It’s clear that greater flexibility is needed. As leaders, we must recognize that hours spent glued to the screen are less important than the actual level of contribution and collaboration. If deliverables are being met on time and in line with expectations, it doesn’t matter if someone is “clocking in” by 9 a.m. Some people may find it beneficial to begin their work-from-home days far earlier than standard office time, while others need to adjust their entire routine to accommodate other things that are happening in the home, such as virtual back-to-school sessions for their children. Accommodating your employees in a way that allows them to meld their personal and professional lives can immediately help ease undue stress and increase performance.

Make people-centered decisions 

As a business leader, you’re accustomed to making decisions that are directly tied to the bottom line. That’s never going to change, nor should it. But there’s a way to be mindful of your organization’s growth while simultaneously putting (and keeping) your people at the top. This doesn’t mean involving the entire staff in every minor detail, but it does mean taking the time to consider how your choices will impact them. With every major decision you make, your employees need to know that you care, and they need to feel that their concerns are being addressed. Without this, anxiety swells, and the quality of work suffers. Always encourage questions from your teams and institute an open-door policy. Make sure that employees know it’s safe to ask tough questions by never shying away from them.

Be consistent and transparent 

Whether communicating with employees one-on-one or sending a company-wide memo, your information and how it is presented should convey the same tone and messaging. Sit down with the entire leadership team to create a documented plan that’s accessible to all employees, and then live by that plan. For an organization to thrive, it must excel in its communication, and that starts internally, especially when facing unprecedented personal challenges every single day. Your internal communications must also be transparent. No successful organization can run on pure optimism and best wishes, and your people can tell when you’re faking it. To help ease anxiety, speak plainly and directly, and give your teams the most vital information they can use.

If you think you’re overcommunicating with your teams, you’re probably doing it right. Now is not the time to hold back. While you don’t want to spam your employees throughout the day with emails, a weekly update is a nice reminder that you care and that you’re staying updated on all information that could impact them. For those still working remotely, consider making it more personal by recording your weekly update as a brief five-minute video. These updates should be serious enough to convey your message, and lighthearted enough to inspire a laugh or two. The most important thing is to keep your teams informed and connected, without creating additional distraction or anxiety.

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