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Commentary & Analysis

Managing Employee Stress During the COVID-19 Crisis

This is an unprecedented and chaotic time, the nature of business is changing rapidly, and everyone in the organization, from the top down, feels the stress. Wayne Lynn offers some guidance for business leaders to help alleviate employee stress.

By Wayne Lynn
Published: March 23, 2020

In the early 1990s, the US Army coined a new acronym named VUCA. The intent was to capture the nature of combat in the post-Cold War era. The VUCA world is:

  • Volatile—everything around us is changing rapidly and, usually, the pace is accelerating;
  • Uncertain—events have become unpredictable;
  • Complex—cause-and-effect forces have become interconnected and nearly impossible to unbundle for analytical purposes;
  • Ambiguous—this introduces a strong potential for misreads and misinterpretation of events.

The VUCA concept has served the US military well. Increasingly, leaders from all sectors of society have embraced it in an attempt to navigate through these turbulent times.

The most difficult aspect of managing in a VUCA world is the stress it creates, and each component of VUCA induces a different kind of stress. As a leader and, especially, if you are the CEO/owner, you should recognize that your followers are feeling this stress also.

Volatility, caused by the rapid changes going on around us creates feelings of being vulnerable to those changes. We don’t know which change is important to us. We could miss a crucial development that could insure our success but we don’t see it because we’re overwhelmed. To deal with this vulnerability, wise leaders create a vision, a picture of the desired future they want to achieve, and keep their people focused on the target. This helps to mitigate the stress because it becomes easier to discern the changes that could help or hinder progress and filter out all the rest.

Uncertainty has been created—the future doesn’t follow the past like it used to. Disruptions and discontinuities that change the directions of trends happen all the time. Remembering that leadership is a team sport, it is imperative that we harness the talent we have to develop an understanding of what’s going on. Team members, under the stress of disorienting uncertainty, work at odds with each other, undermining the efforts of others. Stress climbs from lack of trust on the team. The wise leader will:

  • Work to foster healthy self-concepts in team members while encouraging them to strengthen their skills and talents
  • Encourage respectful communication
  • Help people to see the power of building win-win relationships

Complexity can be one of the most debilitating causes of stress. In particular, it can be emotionally derailing for leaders. As the forces of cause and effect become more interconnected we struggle to determine what’s within our control and what’s not. Gradually, we begin to feel out of control. It’s normal that, in reaction to this feeling, we seek to over control which makes things worse. The wise leader will help the team collaborate with each other to clarify which forces can be controlled and which can’t. This clarity will wash most of the stress away.

Ambiguity and the strong potential for misreads can cause progress to come to a halt. The stress comes in the form of anxiety. As the anxiety in the team rises, paralysis by analysis becomes the norm. The wise leader fosters innovation, flexible organization, and being personally accountable by team members to change to a more agile and adaptive organization. This will probably not reduce the potential for misreads but it will make the team much more capable of adjusting to new directions when a misread has created a mistake.

World leaders have grappled with the forces of VUCA and the stresses they cause in their efforts to understand and contain the coronavirus. There have been vivid examples of poor focus and vision. There has been poor teamwork and undermining of the efforts of various agencies. There have been vivid examples of attempts to over-control.  There have been misreads, lots of them, and paralysis by analysis. It’s been a learning laboratory for learning to navigate a VUCA world and the world will be better for it.

We are transitioning into a social distance and isolation phase. Your people need goals, structure, and clarity. Your teams need to be strengthened and become more collaborative. Address the fears and concerns of your employees. Remember, how people feel is more important than what they hear you say. Show the warmth and empathy they need. People who are asked to work remotely probably aren’t prepared for it. People need consistent updates. Be understanding of the stress and its impact on productivity.

It’s not too late to get out in front of this. If you are interested in exploring this further, I encourage you to leave a comment here online. You are also welcome to contact me personally at wlynn8697@gmail.com

Wayne Lynn is an advocate of the adage that "you can't manage what you can't measure".  Combining his considerable strengths in leadership, economics, and strategy with broad experience in both public and private companies, he brings focus and discipline to the task of creating and sustaining success in today's chaotic environment.

Wayne has managed businesses ranging in size from $5 million to $500million in annual sales.  He has guided those organizations through a number of diverse market sectors including magazines, catalogs, inserts, direct mail, and general commercial printing.

A student as well as a practitioner of the fine art of business, Wayne's latest focus is on helping business leaders make their companies more viable economically, more relevant in the market place, more adaptive to constant change, and more durable in the long haul.  It's about people, what they know, and how well they execute on what they know.

Wayne can be reached at 704-516-7787 or at wlynn8697@gmail.com.


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