Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Uncertainty, fear and lack of control have prevailed for many people over the last two years. As things start returning to some sense of normalcy, many employers are struggling to find the best ways to help their employees feel safe and comfortable moving forward.
“It feels like this is an appropriate time to stop and take stock of, ‘where do we go from here … what have we learned from past disruptions and how can we apply that in our current setting?’” advised Jeff Gorter, VP of Clinical Crisis Response at R3 Continuum. “This is when savvy business leaders realize, ‘this isn’t just about stumbling past the last crisis and hope that the next one doesn’t come. This is the moment where I invest in, I speak into the culture of my workplace. This is the opportunity to really help shape what an emotionally healthy workplace looks like.”
During a recent ‘Ask-the-Expert’ session, Gorter said some of the most successful companies are focused on engaging and empowering their workers and finding out the best ways to help them be more successful – and productive.
A survey released this month indicated Americans feel more stressed now than at any time in the last 15 years. The American Psychological Association found stress has been pushed “to alarming levels.” The survey, conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the APA found that more adults rated inflation and topics associated with the invasion of Ukraine as stressors than any other issue asked about in the 15-year history of the poll. Supply chain problems and potential cyber and/or nuclear retaliation from Russia were also cited as top sources of distress.
“As they continued to ask these questions, 87 percent of respondents said it feels as if there has been a constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years,” Gorter said. “It has been no longer the singular, self-contained event that strikes and, yes, that was difficult and, yes, that was challenging but we were able to see when did it start and when did it stop and we were able to move forward. What these last two years have shown us is that disruption occurs sometimes overlapping, sometimes on top of each other, sometimes cumulatively. And the reality is every disruption occurs in a context; it occurs in the context of the unique history, the unique culture of your organization, of your business. That organization has a culture and how we respond to it, to future ones is based in many ways on how we responded to the last one.”
A separate recent study found that while employees in certain industries have returned to in-person work, only 31 percent have returned to offices. Gorter said that suggests that there is opportunity for employers to shape and influence how companies proceed from here.
How Business Leaders can Help Employees Get Past the Distress of the Last Two Years?
Telling employees to ‘hang in there,’ or ‘things could always be worse,’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy,’ are the exact things not to say, Gorter said. ‘Toxic positivity,’ as he called it, is the suppression or dismissal of negative emotions and can result in people feeling invalidated, as if their distress is not legitimate.
Instead, leaders can encourage post-traumatic growth, in which they acknowledge the pain many have suffered but affirm the efforts to cope with it. It’s closely aligned with resilience. Research shows most people will respond in a resilient fashion to crises.
“It’s important to realize that doesn’t mean happiness all the time,” Gorter said. “Resilience means, I have experienced the full range of emotions appropriate to the event, consistent with the event … It’s that ability to be able to say, ‘when it’s time to be sad, I’m able to be sad,’ ‘when it’s time to be upset, I’m able to be upset,’ and ‘when it’s time to be happy, it’s time to be happy.’ It’s not about having one unified emotional approach.”
Biggest Struggles Facing Employees as COVID Restrictions are Removed
Negative habits – both physical and emotional – have been largely a hallmark of the pandemic. From weight gain and lack of physical activity to negative group think, people have resorted to a variety of ways to deal with the stress of the last two years.
“They were last ditch efforts to cope but they no longer work in our current context as we move forward,” Gorter said. “This is a time to reintroduce wellness programs, EAP programs and connecting some incentives, incentivizing the utilization of those programs because they speak to this moment.”
Some companies are using apps or programs that gamify health activities, such as friendly competitions between teams or departments.
One pattern that employers should be aware of is what Gorter called ‘reflective catastrophizing,’ or a doom-and-gloom attitude in which every challenge is magnified. “We need to make sure we are not falling into a pattern of reflective catastrophizing,” he said.
A big challenge is the fact that employees all have different levels of comfort with returning to in-person work. Some are not ready while others are raring to go.
“Savvy business leaders who are invested in emotionally health cultures realize ‘I need to have flexibility,’ ‘I need to encourage folks to be gracious with each other as we are returning to what the next normal looks like,’” Gorter said. “Part of that is because there is this rush to normalcy.”
He said it is important for leaders to recognize that some things have changed and will never be quite the same.
Organizations may also need to relearn some social interactions in a new context, especially since many companies are going to a hybrid way of working. Communicating openly with employees is important, as is seeking their input.
“It’s gives them a voice,” Gorter said. “Having a voice is empowering. Having a sense of agency, or influence after two years in which [they were] completely out of control, were not able to influence things; being able to engage them in ‘what are your needs,’ ‘what suggestions do you have.’ That kind of dialogue back and forth leads to an empowered and engaged workforce.”