WORKING UNDER THE STRESS OF LOCKDOWN
So here we find ourselves, in lockdown. I think it would be fair to say that many of us are disappointed, having hoped that ‘herd immunity’ might have been achieved through vaccination roll out, but not surprised that we are here again.
Over the course of the last 3 weeks, my colleagues and I at K3 Consulting had noted a significant increase in discussion and activity from our clients surrounding the need to ensure that they were ready for another lockdown. The general consensus was that it was “only a matter of time” given the infectious nature of the Delta strain of Covid-19. And, in light of what was happening in Australia – NSW in particular – many of our clients felt that the same plan as used last year, along with the same messages, might not prove as effective in the event of a new lockdown event. Also, it was felt that last year’s approaches might not have been as successful as they could have been. So, to that end, a fresh look was being taken at the plans and procedures associated with Level 4 in particular, with a focus on team functioning, culture, productivity & systems, customer engagement, and importantly mental health.
Coincidentally, I was forwarded a message on Sunday (15 Aug) from a colleague, which had been sent from his son’s school in Sydney. The key message was that people risk becoming a little “obsessed”, and perhaps overwhelmed, with the daily Covid numbers and media commentary. Sound familiar? It made the point, not so subtly made by NSW Health’s Chief Psychiatrist, that the Covid lockdown could be described as “probably the most sustained and serious stress that many of us are going to face in our lifetime” and it went on to reiterate the importance of a good routine diet and sleep patterns. Importantly, it stressed the need to ensure people are staying connected, reaching out for help if needed and asking others how they are doing.
While the lockdown in New Zealand will hopefully be of much shorter duration than that in Sydney, there are some common threads coming through from clients in their assessment of where they are and what they need to do in the current environment.
Firstly, there is a real need to ensure proper manager & team member connection. This needs to extend beyond task lists and work duties and must focus on two-way communication, centred on well-being, coping and of course productivity constraints. There has been a huge amount of work done over the last 18 months on teams’ ability to work from home, but some of the ‘events’ of last year (remote Friday drinks, dress-ups, hat meetings, etc) seem to hold little appeal this year as people strive to ‘just get through it’.
The other trend we are noticing is that it has also put a spotlight on team functioning and home-based working when not in lockdown. In some environments where there is increased flexibility around working from home, questions are being asked about whether this has a negative or positive overall impact on team functioning, productivity, problem solving and customer engagement. Some organisations seem to be making the call that it should not be the norm, and rather a by-exception basis, where others feel that it is a critical tool in the armoury to provide employees with choice and flexibility.
There is no doubt that certain roles and teams will be better suited to it than others however, and therefore this becomes a difficult situation to manage where it might suit some parts of the organisation and not others. How should this be dealt with? What is the impact of saying ‘Yes’ to some, ‘No’ to others? How will this impact on morale and a sense of fairness? What are the principles that need to be applied for ensuring the attraction of new talent, supporting current team members, and optimising productivity?
Regardless of how long NZ’s lockdown lasts, or how organisations choose to deal with home-based working post-lockdown, there is wide consensus and now understanding of the stress that Covid has been placing on individuals and teams.
What is also widely understood is that sustained stress can be extremely detrimental to individuals’ well-being (in both the short and long term) and obviously overall performance. As a result of this, we are seeing a significant increase in the need to proactively engage with the workforce on mental wellbeing and coping strategies, and to ensure that there is the management competence for having empathetic and constructive conversations, creating the right kind of environment to achieve goals, as well as how managing their own stress & pressure alongside that of their team.
Organisations should be putting a fair amount of effort into giving their managers the tools to manage this proactively, to ensure that there is a common language and skills, and where appropriate, ensure that there is external support (psychologists / counsellors) confidentially available and accessible. Beyond this, it will become increasingly important to coach for resilience to help drive coping through ambiguity, and to ensure that teams have the mental agility required to deal with disruption.
Regardless of what happens with the current Lockdown, the increased frequency of disruption is likely here to stay. Beyond that, I would strongly recommend that businesses are re-looking at their Crisis Plans to minimise the negative impact of disruption in the future and to ensure that everything from the last 18 months that has been learned is hard-wired into the processes and systems. As I said at that the beginning, some of our best performing clients started revisiting their plans over 3 weeks ago based on the exposure risks associated with contacts from NSW, and when the Prime Minister announced the current lockdown this week, they were extremely pleased they had done their planning already.
And finally, as pointed out by NSW’s Health’s Chief Psychiatrist, this is likely the most sustained and serious stress that many of us will face in our lifetimes. I think it is important that we therefore acknowledge this, and recognise that there will be the potential for a lingering impact even when lockdown is ended and people return to ‘normal’. Again, organisations and leaders need to consider how to deal with this in terms of their own coping as well as that of their team members. Reduced overall resilience could significantly hamper the fast start that organisations will be striving for, and could result in small shocks having large impacts over the short-to-medium term. With proactive plans in place, open dialogue, and courageous leadership I believe this risk can be mitigated again.
For advice on managing staff in this new environment, get in touch with the team.
Should you need assistance with mental health related challenges, click here to view the governments’ mental health and wellbeing resources: