Back when many of us used to board airplanes, we all sat through the safety demonstration. In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first, before attempting to help – anyone.
The same principle remains true for business leaders during the pandemic: Take care of yourself first, so you will be ready to provide help for those that depend on you. This “me first” philosophy should come in the form of self-care. By caring for yourself as a leader, you will gain insights about how to care for your team.
Pre-pandemic, your leadership may have been judged according to business performance. Now, your behavior will be evaluated on how well you care for the mental and emotional needs of your employees, most of whom live with fear about their health and livelihoods.
In reality, the overwhelming pandemic challenges that CEOs, owners and managers face means that the natural focus will be on extinguishing fires instead of how to keep afloat. It’s estimated that small-and-medium businesses, representing 99% of all businesses and two-thirds of private sector employment, can expect to lose 50% of their typical sales revenue in 2020 1 .
Which means: trying to figure out how to revamp their businesses, conform to social distancing rules, enticing customers back, making the rent and paying their suppliers. Employers must also solve how to manage lockdown fluctuations in staffing, while keeping their employees safe.
The Pandemic: New Opportunities to Form Stronger Relationships in the Workplace?
Business leaders have reported 2 they need better guidance themselves during the pandemic to meet the legal, if not moral, obligation to keep their people safe. Earlier in the pandemic, when it looked like the “first wave” of infections was subsiding, some governments provided clear direction to employers about how to re-open businesses safely. However, competing national, provincial and local jurisdictions issued often conflicting and confusing directives about how to operate safely while they attempted to survive under “lockdown” restrictions.
Help may be at hand, with some organizations taking up a leadership role. VIATEC, an industry association, technology accelerator and community builder based in Canada, received international awards 3 and accolades for a simple but comprehensive re-entry plan 4 .
The plan helped fulfill two leadership responsibilities. The first, concretely explained how to conform to confusing new health regulations and second, keep employees safe. Following the plan meant hundreds of small tech and light-manufacturing companies powering the local economy could resume operations.
Also, the roadmap helped CEOs and managers achieve a higher, and more lofty goal: to clearly explain how they would keep employees safe. Employees understood that their employers not only cared about their health, but also their livelihood, which helped mitigate stress. According to VIATEC, workplaces have bonded during the pandemic, leading to a greater sense of unity 5 .
Employers and employees alike should be able to feel that as they live through a defining moment of our generation, there is shared humanity in the workplace.
How Should Business Leaders Communicate During a Pandemic?
In a time of uncertainty, business leaders must focus on communicating clearly to build trust with employees. Admit that you are all experiencing challenging times, together. Staff not only want to feel safe from COVID-19 in the workplace, they also want to know if their job is safe. About 50% 6 of workers expect to experience financial hardship because of the pandemic. Employees want to know in advance if their job will disappear if business conditions continue to get worse.
Do not be afraid to ask your employees if they need help. Some may need more flexible working arrangements in order to care for children or family members. Others may be struggling with stress and anxiety, common by-products of the pandemic.
By providing your team with an opportunity for input and feedback, you are also giving them more control over their situation. This not only protects their mental health, it may also contribute to improvements in coping with isolation, fear of illness and worry about loved ones. Create spaces where your team can collaborate on solutions that offer both safety and reassurance.
Finally, provide model behavior for your team by taking care of yourself. The day-to-day challenges presented by the pandemic are overwhelming for everyone. But remember business leaders are human too, and need enough sleep, good food, regular exercise and time out from the daily torrent of news.
This self-care will not only help you make better choices about how to navigate the twists and turns of the pandemic, but the freshness of mind and spirit will allow business leaders to forge better, more human connections with their employees.
Nevin Thompson is a copywriter, digital-marketing specialist, and Japanese-English translator who frequently writes on Japan, technology, and internet culture. He contributes a regular weekly column to online news site Global Voices, and has appeared in Quartz, Fast Company, PRI International, Japan Times and other publications. He lives on Vancouver Island with his family.
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