Lockdown is lifting and the Government is trying to get the economy moving. Amongst all the other measures, Rishi’s Meal Deal might be a nice bit of encouragement but there’s a lot of debate about how safe or otherwise people feel going out and about. The virus isn’t the only reason people don’t feel safe. The coming economic shock wave is bringing job insecurity and likely mass unemployment. Uncertainty is everywhere and with uncertainty comes anxiety. Leaders need to step up and provide containment.
There’s plenty in the media about a looming mental health crisis as people return to work. There’s no doubt, for some, lockdown has been a lonely, isolated experience. Furlough has been brilliant at saving jobs, but uncertainty is on the increase as its rollback looms. And, of course, the predicted large-scale unemployment was brought closer this week with the announcement from Boots and John Lewis. All this is before people deal with the reality of venturing back into a world where Covid-19 still exists.
Like everyone else, I used Zoom in the lockdown to work with my clients but this week I went back face-to-face. I obviously have an ethical duty to take every precaution. I’ve mentally walked through interactions with clients to try and identify all the touch points. I’ve prepared and shared the guidelines we need and sourced hand sanitiser, tissues, face masks and refuse sacks for double bagging. And this is just for me and my clients. It was challenging and I can only imagine what it will be like covering the bases in a busy or more complex workplace.
It’s not possible to guarantee absolute safety. All I can promise is to have considered the risks and taken appropriate steps. Then it’s up to me to offer my clients the sense of safety they need and deserve.
Fear is infectious. Yesterday I was walking my dogs early in the morning. A rabbit broke cover, ran across the field and into the burrow, with my two chasing. The rabbit was never in any danger, my dogs are getting on a bit now and lack the pace of their youth. The rabbit didn’t know that though. It charged into the burrow, having run for its life, spreading fear to every other rabbit down there. It’s a survival mechanism. Aware of the existential danger, no other rabbit was going to emerge at that moment.
Humans may be more sophisticated than a burrow of rabbits but we’re still mammals. The same basic process operates within us as within the rabbits. We pick up signals below our conscious awareness from everyone and everything around us. If those signals indicate danger our autonomic nervous system responds before we’ve got any conscious awareness of what’s going on. Our response is to fight, flight or freeze, depending on whether our unconscious assesses the situation as dangerous or life threatening. We won’t be able to focus on or engage with anything else until we’ve re-assessed the environment as safe.
There may be nothing to do about the initial infection of fear but it’s possible to soothe the response. A calm, assured presence can make a huge difference. Infants looks to Mum or Dad, or whoever is the primary care giver, for reassurance all is well. Panic hits if they can’t find it. The same is true for adults. When we’re frightened, we look to the authority figure and like it or not, that’s whoever is in the leadership role.
If you’re a leader you need to embody calm confidence. You need to build the trust of those around you, which means consistency and reliability are incredibly important. Pivot without a clear and understandable reason and people will find it almost impossible to rely on you. Communication is absolutely fundamental. Withholding information is destructive. People will project their anxieties into the ‘silence’ so communicate openly and if there is nothing new to say, then make that your update. For the same reason leaders need to be available and responsive. Anxieties will be attracted to the vacuum created by your absence. Actions matter more than words and there’s real trouble if the two don’t match. For example, saying a surface is clean and safe and then being careful not to touch it completely undermines trust, as does doing the reverse.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you’re a leader, you need to take care of yourself. You’re human too. Containing everyone’s anxiety is demanding. A lot is being asked of you and if you’re going to sustain the effort you need a space in which you can offload and recharge.
Get in touch if you would like some help or guidance.