Covid-19, Mental Health & Leadership in Crisis

“We are in this together, we will get through this, together.”

– Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General

This article is co-authored by Sourav Raina & Alexandra Zografou

When news of COVID-19 in China broke out in late December, the rest of the world seemed to observe the event unfolding from the side-lines. For too many, this situation was happening far away and would barely affect them anyway. When the World Health Organization declared the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern in January 2020, the concern naturally began to grow. Fast forward a few months later, and while everyone thought the pandemic would be isolated in Asia, one country after the other is hit by the crisis throughout the world: Spain, Iran, with USA recording the highest number. Responses from governments were immediate, and measures were consequently imposed. 

By early spring 2020, practically every country has entered into full or partial lockdown. Along with the new situation, new terms emerge and are coined: “social-distancing,” “self-quarantine,” and “self-isolation” are flooding the news and social media. However, it will not take long to these terms to describe the current situations as the new normal.

For the first time after decades, the world comes to a standstill to reflect on an entirely new state of affair. People across the world have never felt so close or united in the face of the pandemic – everyone is forced to stay at home and forbidden from meeting friends, family or colleagues, and obliged to work remotely. People saw their homes becoming their offices, their classroom, their gyms, and their space for (family) entertainment – among other things – overnight.

This new reality has a different meaning for each individual and, since everyone is fighting their own battles, assessing who has been affected the most is debatable. The elderly and people with chronic illnesses, deemed the population groups facing the highest risk, might have to continue self-isolating for the longest time. Kids have been experiencing a complete shift in their daily routine, while many have been affected negatively due to a loss or sickness of a relative. Young we are dealing with considerable uncertainty and change due to financial worries, health threats and potential job losses. Meanwhile, college and university students are stressed about dormitory evacuation and cancellation of classes and anticipated events such as exchange studies and graduation ceremonies. Some lost their part-time jobs as local businesses closed. Students in their final years are anxious about the job market they are going to enter soon.

An unusual crisis of such intensity can trigger a range of physiological and psychological responses that include heightened sensitivity and mental distress. While necessary and unavoidable, the social distancing measures that many countries have implemented, forced people and organizations to opt for new measures – adjusting to the new normal and dealing with social isolation have caused disruptions to daily routines. Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and grief are compounded by being away from schools, work, peers, adjusting to new ways of learning and working, as well as fear of losing jobs and family income.

Covid-19 is an unexpected blow for the world which is already in the chaos of global slowdown. The current situation has further fuelled the exponential change that businesses were already going through, and one of the most direct outcomes would be the global economic repercussions. We have already begun to see the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic— millions of people around the world have lost their jobs or been furloughed, and businesses across the country have shut their doors indefinitely.

It is the younger generations, however—Millennials and Generation Z—who will likely bear the most considerable financial and mental health brunt of the current crisis. Many millennials entered the workforce that had not yet recovered from the 2008 recession. Now they are being walloped again by the pandemic.

Change of any kind is difficult to adopt at such an unprecedented speed, especially during times like these, as people experience more stress and uncertainty. One of the most significant shifts this situation has brought was switching to working remotely. While certainly challenging, working remotely has a lot of benefits for mental health. However, the current situation has made things more complicated and remote working may create additional stressors.

The sudden shift to working from home has the potential to de-rail the performance and productivity of employees. Employees are under enormous stress; stress can make it tough to focus on the job or be effective in decision making. Leaders goal should focus on employees first and work second. Leaders should make sure that employees have sufficient infrastructure, flexibility, and mental health support to do their job to the best of their ability under the current circumstances.

A research conducted in Hong Kong after the SARS outbreak in 2003 suggests that increased social connectedness neutralize the negative impact of the pandemic on mental health. Connection with colleagues and managers can help employees to cope up with social isolation. Leaders should make sure that there should be plenty of interactions throughout the organization. Employees should be encouraged to stay regularly connected with virtual video meetings. Also, the current circumstances should be considered as a chance to upskill employees and cross skill teams. Employees should be provided access to the online learning tools to empower employees, increase organizational capability and work skills of the teams.

Facing such a potentially tricky scenario requires a highly visible and caring leadership that can set the tone and gain the trust of the employees. Leadership that can lead to demonstrate empathy and strict to the most essential element of leadership: To make a positive difference in people’s life. Leaders should acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees experience during a crisis and ensure that they can sense a feeling of being cared. The inability to deal with circumstances can exact a mental health toll on individuals and portend desperate outcomes for organizations. An organization mired in collective despair will not unleash the creativity and innovation necessary to navigate a crisis and emerge as an inspiration to many others. 

It is definitive that leaders have no conclusive answers to the prevailing situation, and the future of their organization, the worst they can do is to say nothing. Ineffective and vague communication can be assumed as worst by the employees, and raise the suspicion regarding the ability of leaders to handle the current crisis. The goal should be to communicate, even if that means telling employees you don’t have all the answers yet. Be transparent with what you know, what you don’t know, and what you are doing to learn more.

Leaders need to re-think, re-imagine and re-align the response plan as there are no predefined set of rules. They should develop a mindset and behaviour to deal with the ongoing situation and continuously re-invent the process of decision making to navigate through the present situation effectively and to envision the post Covid-19 scenario. 

As per McKinsey & Co., four qualities – Awareness, Vulnerability, Empathy and Compassion are crucial for business leaders to take care of the mental health of people in crisis and successfully lead them amidst the chaos. 

It starts with awareness—the ability of a leader to precisely access and to be aware of the situation. Be bold in exhibiting vulnerability towards the unknown and brace up for the challenge. Demonstrate a sense of care and empathy to understand the emotions of people, and develop compassion to make them feel genuinely cared. Leaders should stay authentic, open and acknowledge that they do not have all the answers. It will help them to gain the confidence and credibility of the employees, not just during the crisis but in the long term. 

Leaders should follow the three A’s rule (Assess, Anticipate and Act) for decision making amidst the uncertainty. As a crisis is full of uncertainties and the unknown, leaders have less information to make decisions. In such circumstances, leaders should meticulously access the situation and combine the well-balanced blend of information and intuition for decision-making. They should keep on collecting the more information vis a vis to continuously keeping track of how well their decisions are working. By exercising a continuous synergy between information and decision, leaders can anticipate what should be the next steps to act. A deliberate pause between every assess-anticipate-act circle can help leaders to avoid overreaction as they consume the new information. Once decided on what to do, leaders should ensure that the visible decisiveness and effective communication to have the organization’s confidence in leaders.

To conclude, no matter what disruptive forces and how stressful the scenario is; humans are at the centre of every organization. Tough time tests the human spirit, and leaders often emerge from the most unexpected places. In such instances, every employee should be empowered, encouraged and enabled to feel safe and cared for his/her wellbeing. So that when it gets over; they should come through the crisis more resilient than when they went in.

Furthermore, the current crisis is an opportunity for organizations that have a poor track record of transparency. Covid-19 is an opportunity to reset, improve and sustain the culture. To reinforce behaviours and values that support the organizations during the crisis, prepare even better for the next challenges.

About Authors:

Sourav Raina

Business and Strategy Consulting Professional

Based in New Delhi, India

Alexandra Zografou

Creative Project Management & Innovation Professional

Based in Madrid, Spain

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