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Back to office? Leaders may have to resolve the post pandemic distress first
More than a year after the officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and business leaders are still navigating through the aftermath of the pandemic which is deemed to be one of the greatest challenges of our time. It is all dependent on the capability and competency of business leaders when the government restrictions are gradually lifted, business operations will resume and they will determine when to kickstart the gruelling task of returning back to the office, while taking into consideration the safety and health risks of the all employees.
While multiple effective coronavirus vaccines are being produced, approved and distributed certainly brought optimism to many which brings hope of a return to normalcy at the workplace, though the disruptions of the global labour market will persist for an indefinite period of time.
The focal point of this article is to touch base on the social and economic impact that has affected humanity as a whole, primarily in the workplace and mental health of employees. When the COVID-19 pandemic hits, there has been significant changes in the livelihoods of many, offering profound uncertainty on what’s next for them.
The combination of job security and financial woes unfolded the growing prevalence of anxiety, depression, defensive coping mechanisms and withdrawal symptoms. Due to the occurrence of the pandemic, some people may think about their own mortality which results in more stress thus significantly reducing workplace engagement. Weak mental health may sometimes be perceived as a disadvantage at work hence most of the time, workers keep it concealed.
The pandemic has alerted all leaders globally for an unyielding leadership test: What can leaders do to boost employees’ mental health and wellbeing in the workplace?
Results have shown that the emotional sufferings of employees have significantly reduced when leaders exhibited Servant Leadership methods that centres around empathy and having “the notion of being ever ready to serve”, for instance:
– Empathize with employees’ emotional sufferings — both mental and physical wellbeing
– Prioritizing and developing employees personal, professional growth and happiness
– Encouraging employees to find contentment during the pandemic by contributing more towards the less fortunate or fostering pets
– Empowering employees by being available and present to them
– Communicate more often than usual — be a listening ear and provide suggestions when required
– Encourage employees to utilize Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and speak to psychologists and counsellors
– Offering one on one support to their employees
– Considering giving employees time off or day offs
– Be vulnerable and open up personal struggles with employees
Laurie Mitchell, assistant vice president of global wellbeing and health at Unum stated that “Leaders and employees’ awareness, early intervention and education are some of the most vital components of adopting mental health resources and benefits.”
Servant leaders play significant roles in ensuring the emotional priorities and needs of the employees are met, once this goal is achieved, employees will unite behind a common purpose and recommence to stay engaged and positive at work while contributing to their communities, which in turn creates a culture of confidence, belief and impartiality at work thus allowing employees to be more creative, efficient and productive in their role.
As most of the attention is being shifted towards employees’ concerns, servant leaders understand their needs hence providing them with autonomy and adequate resources to manoeuvre around different situations.
Top-down approaches such as transformational leadership do not work well in a stressful environment, with or without a pandemic. Servant leadership methods are more effective in positively influencing a workplace environment, causing a massive reduction in states of uncertainty and anxiety as leaders embrace a bottom-up approach, emphasizing on the needs and growth of employees.
In retrospect, there are numerous ways that employees could reduce stress by themselves by making a couple of lifestyle and routine changes at work:
– To reduce burnout, employees should develop boundaries and flexibility on their working hours and personal life
– Turning off email notifications after work hours
– Engaging in activities that boost employees’ dopamine and endorphins levels
– Strike up a conversation with a colleague, talk about things outside of work
– Set up automatic replies when you’re on leave as it signals a crucial boundary
Vaccinations are being rolled out globally and many are being inoculated at a rapid rate, Anthony Fauci, American immunologist and scientist suggested that 70–85% of the population has to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity and return to normalcy. Bloomberg report made a prognosis based on a global vaccination tracker, stating that will take approximately 7 years based on today’s vaccines rates.
Notwithstanding the many difficulties that business leaders have to face as mass vaccinations programs take place and having the offices open up again while gradually allowing employees to return to office. In a survey conducted by Gensler, 2300+ employees in the US from various industries are eager to work in the office again but expect changes with the new ways of working.
Employees may feel uneasy to return before herd immunity takes place as there are possible repercussions such as a second or third wave of the pandemic by the loosening of social distance restrictions, worrying about their own health and safety upon returning to work can cause substantial amounts of stress for employees.
Firstly, to combat the above worries, organizations can conduct surveys to gauge employees’ desires and readiness to return to work post-pandemic as business leaders can better understand employees’ expectations and what they can prepare and provide for the next phase.
If in any case an employee refuses to return to the office due to fears of being exposed to the virus, the first step an employer could do is to ensure that everyone in the organization comprehends and abides to health and safety protocols, such as mask wearing, maintaining a 1 meter distance, daily temperature checks, being open and transparent to one another if any persons have been exposed to the virus or are close contacts and providing sufficient personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies at the office.
Employers should enquire if employees have a pre-existing condition that makes them more susceptible to coronavirus which puts them into the category of being a high-risk individual. Furthermore, the environment and the nature of a person’s job is predominantly a major feature in their requirement to return to office and the employers would have to make a judgment call after taking into account the various above-mentioned factors.
In a nutshell, the most critical and prominent aspect of all would be the organizational leaders’ commitment towards easing anxieties in employees should not just be mere lip service, leaders must “walk the talk”, with consistency in their actions, leaders build trust and respect among employees and it sends a key signal that they immensely care about every employee’s safety, wellbeing and mental health — that is how you differentiate between a leader and a boss.