Most people are telling me that they are suffering from nightmares; they’re feeling anxious and that these feelings of anxiety are interspersed with frustration at not being able to plan, combined with a sort of bored monotony of every week being the same, even though the law surrounding our isolation is changing constantly.
It’s probably worth looking at our fears in order to confront them better, and there doesn’t seem to be much clarity as to how to allay these fears, or to suggest that we will be returning to a more normal way of living for at least several months.
Long term anxiety is very uncomfortable and can lead to the flipside, which is depression. Ignoring these feelings is never a good idea. So, what can we do? One positive option is to be candid and to share the way we are feeling, to set up informal chat groups or even ‘moaning meetings’, with maybe some positive topic to be shared at the same time. However, this is only part of a much wider trend that tends to be taking place; individuals need to talk - and leaders need to talk to their employees a lot more than they are doing. The best leaders at the moment are those who really know what is going on in their workforce, in terms of anxiety and fear.
First of all, there is the need for physical safety. The need for psychological stability should not allow us to forget the normal high standards of health and safety that are required by nature of a particular work-place, but particularly now because of Covid. I have had a Chief Executive on the phone the other day, very distressed because her business partner will not wear a mask on client sites and is therefore setting a bad example to the staff, and indeed this could lead to reputational damage. This is not uncommon, but there is little that can be done other than clear, non-violent communication to air the issues - and no one is above the law.
So, the first thing leaders can do is to bottom out the physical safety, which will, to some extent, help to allay the psychological anxiety. The physical is tangible and the discussion over masks, distancing, ‘face, space and hands’ can be the beginning of a more subtle conversation about inner fears.
If we look at the great composers and the anxiety with which they lived in their particular eras, although in many ways that cannot be compared with now, we can extrapolate that we can utilise fear for stimulating creativity and, in a way, although seen by some to be counter-intuitive, there can be greater collective security because the insecurity is shared and that, in turn, sets up a positive cycle of creativity.
The second area of concern is the workplace. There are several employees in every organisation who wish to return to work because their home environment does not lend itself to home working, and there are also those who wish to stay at home. There is no reason why one cannot have a mixed workforce once current restrictions have been lifted. It requires more management, more time and more investment, but the productivity can be extremely beneficial.
Some people become so used to having their stress and cortisol levels roused that they cannot remove that arousal and they then start to find stress in all sorts of what were once perfectly straightforward situations. One becomes habituated to stress. A way round this is to make sure that there are enough nice things in the diary and that one’s physical exercise is sufficient to drive the bad chemicals back to their source.
Some leaders may be giving a huge amount of thought to anxiety and depression, but this is no good unless they communicate that. It is often very helpful for a leader to show their own vulnerability, which will help in turn to build trust and confidence together.
We now have wonderful technology that enables us to reach people instantaneously, so maybe this is the moment, counterintuitively, to join all those meet-up groups you’ve always thought of joining, to practise the instrument that’s been gathering dust or the piano which has been used solely to place photographs on, and to explore emotions in a different way, as we are having to supress so much in other ways.
Another area to think about is not putting your head into the mouth of the lion, and therefore not feeding your anxiety by watching social media and the television – cutting back to, perhaps, one small exposure per day to hear the essentials.
Leaders have it just as difficult – if not worse – than the staff. Whatever happened to walking the floors? This is absolutely impossible, so there has to be even more frequent - and better - one-to-one conversations from leaders to their staff. It is never wise to forget the fact that people leave organisations because they don’t feel valued, and whilst they may not feel able to leave at the moment, there will come a time when the pent up lack of value drives resignations that you may not wish to have. The investment now, in that one-to-one relationship, could be the answer. Thoughtful and really engaged one-to-one discussions of senior leaders with all levels of staff, as they all contribute to the final product, could be the saving grace. Finding out from the horse’s mouth, rather than intermediaries, will result in the right acitivites to help to sustain a positive outlook. There are those who pooh pooh yoga, meditation, prayer and even exercise, and yet everybody is going to need some sort of outlet. How could leaders introduce some other third party to help with interactions on the spiritual scale that will give people an outlook and a diminution of anxiety?
There is never a time when I don’t think about oxygen on aircrafts, and how the individual needs to use oxygen before helping others. This is exactly the same of leaders in high stress positions; they not only need to take care of themselves but also to set that kind of example to others. There are many kinds of leaders – those who are risk takers and those who are less comfortable with risk. It’s fine to show vulnerability and to demonstrate there are different kinds of people in leadership. This involves things like the basics, such as getting enough sleep, and I would certainly recommend Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why We Sleep’ and also a wonderful book on living well and longer – The Longevity Diet by Walter Longo. It’s important, perhaps, to remember the basics.
We all know Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream…” and leaders need to have dreams and visions. If they don’t, then the rest of us cannot follow in their slipstream. Looking after the leader is as important as leaders looking after their staff.