To support employees struggling with grief, trauma, and burnout as we head back into the office, there are some best practices to follow.
Stress can be a taboo word in business. Professionals want to project an image of calm and competence. A global event like a pandemic that impacts life and business for more than a year makes stress impossible to deny. The effects of that stress will inevitably impact people’s spending habits, sales strategies, and, more acutely, communication.
How stress will affect you, or inform your business, will require an unflinching look at what people have experienced.
We need to remember, it was March 2020 when COVID-19 put the world on an indefinite hold, and while people have made good-natured fun about their “quaranversaries,” the struggle, as they say, is real.
The impact of stress
Companies have always found ways to use stress. Shops sell pithy cards and t-shirts about the ‘Rise & Grind’ life. Health brands peddle unique formulas of vitamins geared toward ‘destressing.’ Bookshelves and nightstands are stacked with titles on overcoming stress and ending the celebration of busyness.
However, the actual weight of stress is an objective threat to health on the individual and the community level.
How can you take what you’ve learned about stress – personally and professionally – and apply it in a meaningful way moving forward? Let’s start with what we know:
- Decision-making has been on hold: whether it’s travel or education, guidelines or bans have decided for us.
- Grief has been a companion: from frontline workers to your neighbor, death has happened at an alarming rate, and the loss, compounded by the lonely last moments of so many, has had a devastating effect.
- Chronic stress harms our DNA: our minds are always on the lookout for threats, the cortisol that ensues attacks the telomeres, which are the protective casing tail of a DNA strand. The normal aging process gets overridden, and there is a physical cost.
Types of increased stress
There will always be things that weigh us down, but COVID-19 coupled with tumultuous events took a particular toll on people.
- Economic—By and large, people did not have the savings necessary to endure the lockdown and furloughs. Based on a National Endowment for Financial Education survey, more than 8 in 10 Americans say the COVID-19 crisis stressed their finances.
- Professional—Struggles professionally ranged from fears of contracting COVID-19, to changes in workload, layoffs, bankruptcy, and balancing family needs.
- Education—Regulations vary by state, but across the United States and other parts of the world, parents and guardians struggled with the uncertainty of school reopenings, virtual learning, access to good internet, and the drop off in physical activity.
- Mental Health—Increased social isolation, mounting political polarity related to mask guidelines, decreased access to in-person health care, and non-emergency procedures have led to a spike in depression, mental health fragility, and suicide.
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Stressors that have always existed, but that the pandemic brought in to focus
Across the globe, gender and race have always influenced earning, healthcare, and visibility, but in 2020 it became a part of the public dialogue.
- Gender—The imbalance of labor related to family and domestic work has always existed, but as COVID-19 sent children home, women were primarily the caretakers. The percentage of healthcare workers and first responders worldwide that are women is 70%. Looking at the transgender and non-binary community (TGNB), COVID-19 emphasized the existing inequities in access to health care, employment issues, and even homelessness as laws fail to protect TGNB.
- Race—Fifty years ago, Dr. Chester M. Pierce proposed microaggressions to represent the subtle racial expressions imposed on people and how stigmatization and bias adversely impact people (Think ‘Wuhan Virus’ or ‘I don’t see color’.) Arline T. Geronimus brought forward the term ‘weathering’ to encompass the chronic and persistent trauma of being black, indigenous, or Latinx in America as a result of racism. Covid-19 disproportionately affected communities of color. Access to the vaccine was not equitable. Pervasive misinformation associating COVID-19 with Asians was rampant.
- Accessibility—Living in lockdown, the issue of accessibility and accommodations for health conditions and returning to the workforce came to the fore. The world has been very ableist, tasting limitations may have increased the collective perception of baseline standards.
Stress the importance of empathy
The work of acknowledging weakness, stress, and inequality is grueling. It can also be humbling and create real moments of reckoning. The other thing it can do is make people more comfortable. We’ve all seen the launch of clothes for the WFH crowd, blue light glasses for eye fatigue from prolonged screen time. You can infuse your process, organization, and communication with that same nod to comfort.
- Acknowledge that there is uncertainty. It is ok to not know how everything will turn out, sometimes it is enough to say that you are ready to take things as they come.
- Continue to learn. The digital world has begun to standardize the use of alt-text, find more ways to deliberately consider the access and comfort of all individuals.
- Be transparent. You don’t have to show the whole playbook, but when we offer the reasoning for making changes, trust builds.
- Care about the outcome. Business can be very transactional, take the time, whether with an employee, or a client, to invest in how they feel. You can follow up with the individual. Begin to layer new exchanges with the experiences that came before, creating much more human-influenced transactions.
- Remember the unseen. Just as business owners have challenges that employees may never know, clients and people in the workforce have things influencing how they feel and act that you may never see.
- Keep communicating. When we listen, we learn. When people are heard, they feel seen. The combination of listening, learning, and visibility will always be a powerful formula for making people feel less stressed.
- Pay attention to diversity. The bottom line is that if you do not have representation by non-white, non-male individuals, you are missing the benefit of a range of voices that accurately portray the diversity of the world in which you operate. You can’t sell to those you don’t know and you can’t learn from people who aren’t there. During 2019, culturally and ethnically diverse companies outpaced the profitability of their competitors by 36%.
Eliminating stress isn’t the end goal – the objective should be to honor the fact that at any given moment people are under varying levels of stress and distraction.
Our gesture of recognizing that can be instrumental to finding common ground, building relationships, and being better equipped to anticipate and prepare for things that will help people.