Leading down from Corona Mountain - Lessons from Psychology | Thomas.co

It’s a fact, seasoned mountaineers do say ‘more accidents occur on your way down the mountain’ – a metaphor used by PM Boris Johnson to convey the precarious and tiptoe nature of our exit from Corona lockdown and a return to work.

Whilst leadership teams across the world plan their journey of recovery and redesign, its vital to consider the shifts in the psychological landscape as a consequence of the global pandemic. Maintaining resilience, high engagement and positive wellbeing will be critical factors in helping businesses reach the new normal. Based on psychological research, this article introduces leaders to some emerging behavioural and emotional patterns that might be expected as a result of lockdown. It offers leaders thoughts and ideas and urges leaders to focus and invest in organisational resilience.

Positive Psychology

The striking synchronicity between the recent VE Day celebrations and the Corona crisis reconnects us with a familiar stereotype - ‘the fighting spirit’. The positive narrative is of people pulling together for the common cause, supporting each other, bonding with neighbours, sacrificing, keeping calm and carrying-on.

Research shows that, contrary to the Hollywood portrayal, human response to crisis is not always panic, but often a more positive coming together of personal and collective resources to stay safe and actively overcome threat.

To capitalise on the solidarity of the ‘fighting spirit’ messaging needs be consistent and clear: 1) we are all in it together, 2) we matter as a business, 3) we will not be beaten, 4) employees come first. The leadership challenge will be to re-create the future identity and shared purpose of the business.

Leaders will need to redefine core values, implement new practises, and manage communications. All this will require leaders to be visible, model self-control and be willing to sacrifice.

Mental Wellbeing

As the world emerges from the seismic shockwave of the global pandemic and months enduring lockdown, human nature will force each of us to evaluate our losses and search for some certainty and security going forward. Some will even re-evaluate their lives completely.

Vicariously or directly we’ve all been affected by Corona virus and many feel confused and out of control. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next and what the future holds. Add to this job insecurity and economic recession and the rates of
depression and anxiety in society are likely to soar.

Those unable to cope and adapt can drift into helplessness - an emotional state arising from the belief that you have no power to change your situation or protect the things you love. When helplessness gets a grip, the natural response is to withdraw - people may be physically present but lack the mental resources to truly engage with their work.

Leaders can’t make these feelings go away, it takes time to repair and recuperate. Leadership during Corona crisis will require emotional intelligence qualities such as empathy and acceptance. In addition, leaders will need to be vigilant, build trust, ask questions and listen.

From an emotional perspective, growing uncertainty raises threat and therefore fear and anxiety. Whilst fear can sometimes motivate, fear of the unknown can be debilitating, preventing people from making decisions and taking action.

Leaders should resist the temptation to withhold information and need to be open and honest - reassure but don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Acknowledge uncertainty and tell people what you do know and what you don’t know - be clear and explain what you’re doing to provide more clarity.

Primary Victims

Undoubtedly most businesses will have a proportion of primary victims – people who have experienced direct loss from Covid-19. This could be loss of family or friends, or even major financial losses, etc. Others may have experienced threat to their own life and health.

In worst cases the impact of sudden loss and an uncertain future can lead to hopelessness – the feeling that there is nothing anyone can do to change or improve the situation. This is largely an emotional state of shut-down and inaction, people may struggle to motivate themselves toward recovery. Associated issues include a range of psychological problems e.g. sleep and eating disorders, irritability, conflict, withdrawal, reliance on alcohol and drugs.

Leaders need to put in place a process to identify and support primary victims - they may be reluctant to seek help for themselves. Don’t let their feelings go unchecked and recognise that those directly impacted could react differently under pressure. Some people will need professional help constructing a positive programme of action, at the same time it’s important to restore a sense of autonomy and self-control and keep people engaged.

Corona High

Often some of our most thrilling times are the result of facing adversity or danger. For some, working through lockdown has proved to be a great adventure, a psychological high. This response occurs when we are thrust into situations with high significance and potentially serious outcomes. In such conditions people often abandon normal limitations and ‘rise to the occasion’. The reward for this personal contribution is a massive boost in self-worth, self-awareness and recognition.

Unfortunately, this feeling is short lived as colleagues return and business attempts to get back to normal. For the most part people adapt, but in some cases the initial enthusiasm is replaced by negativity and withdrawal. People may expect preferential treatment – “we were there!”. They may express furlough envy“where were you?”

Its important leaders acknowledge and recognise key worker contributions both publicly and privately. Appreciate they have learned a lot from their experience that might prove valuable in redesigning your future work practises.

Furlough Fallout

Nearly 70% of businesses have furloughed 7.5 million staff. A further 20 million people are working from home.

Research suggests that the experience of furlough is varied. Some people admit to enjoying furlough and the chance to spend time with family and get things done. Some welcome furlough as they are too terrified to leave home. Others are struggling with furlough and would much prefer to be at work. Working from home brings enormous challenges around technology, family care, space, time management and productivity.

Whatever the experience there is likely to be some psychological fallout of furlough and home working. People report missing the structure and familiarity of work and the face-to-face interactions. For many there has been little or no contact with their employers, as a consequence they feel abandoned, devalued and vulnerable - “Being furloughed makes me feel like an old piece of furniture locked away in storage – surplus to requirement, out of sight out of mind, I might be useful again one day!”

Leaders need to acknowledge the damage furlough causes to feelings of self-worth and confidence, and the potential for withdrawal, resentment and frustration. Plan the transition back to work of both furloughed and home workers. Don’t forget to recognise the achievements of those who have continued working from home.

Whilst people will need time to process the past few months, leaders will need to swiftly consider a plan to maintain organisational resilience to support the ‘climb down from Corona Mountain’.

  • Ready the business for a primary focus on wellbeing and mental health
  • Measure and monitor psychological health and employee experience
  • Capitalise on the ‘fighting spirit’ – ‘we are in this together’
  • Take a step back and use your emotional intelligence 
  • Be clear and truthful in your communication
  • Develop confidence - acknowledge and recognise contributions and progress

For the foreseeable future, as the threat of Corona virus ebbs and flows, people will have a very fluid relationship with their work. This will inevitably put strain on mental wellbeing and impact the performance of people at work. This article has offered some thoughts based on human psychology. I hope it provokes and inspires a few ideas and enables leaders to plan and prepare for the new normal.

Dr Mark Slaski