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BUSINESS LEADERS’ BLUES: Advice for Leaders during stressful economic times

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Stressful economic times, like the world is experiencing now with the COVID-19 invasion, hit us all hard, but it places an additional burden on business leaders. While we all are concerned about our own situations, leaders have the added responsibility to also do what is best for their employees. Why should their employees’ wellbeing matter to them? When is the best time for leaders to act? What should they do? Who should be involved? Where does this leave the organization if they do or don’t take the lead to take care of the companies most important assets, it’s employees?

The reason why it matters that business leaders take responsibility for their employees during economic crisis times is for both humanitarian and business strategy reasons. Leaders need to remember that each person is human and most likely someone’s spouse, parent, child, sibling, and/or friend. We all are in this together. In addition to that, leaders should be forward thinking about business plans and consider the future rebuilding needs of the organization and what does the staffing structure plan look like.

The time to start thinking ahead and taking the steps necessary to look after the wellbeing of their workforce is now. Everyone handles stress relatively similarly, however, the time frame spent in each stress phase can vary greatly. We all tend to go through the phases of shock, denial, frustration/anger, depression, experiment/understanding, decision/acceptance, and integration/renewal. Some may already be in the frustration or panic mode and need urgent assistance while others are yet in denial. Likewise, financial management techniques vary by individual. While some have been taught to keep a six-month pocketbook buffer and do so, some live literally week to week and need help promptly. Understanding that everyone is in a different state of mind and financial situation at any given moment during a crisis will help leaders to reach out to their employees right where they are at.

What employers can do for employees during these times of uncertainty needs to be situational solutions, as every condition is unique. First, it is important to keep in mind that we all experience common threats from social experiences that our brains treat similarly as survival issues. As well, we have different responses to them. In his book, Your Brain at Work, Dr. David Rock identified the SCARF model, which stands for STATUS, CERTAINTY, AUTONOMY, RELATEDNESS, and FAIRNESS. Leaders should keep these threats in mind when making decisions that could trigger positive or negative responses in others. Some methods employers can try include:

  • Encourage, enforce, and allow employees that are ill to use their available sick leave, with reassurance that it is not looked poorly on them nor will there be any retaliation for staying away from the office. Not only will the ill employee get the rest needed to recover faster, it also takes the rest of the workforce into consideration. I recall a manager tell me not too long ago that his employee that missed work and took his sick leave wasn’t a true “company man”. How sad is that! This manager didn’t recognize that regardless of what illness is circulating, it is the employers’ responsibility to the other employees to protect them from shared germs. Leaders should always have a plan for any unexpected absenteeism.

  • Retain all workforce if possible by reducing wages across the board or from higher paid individuals, requesting or requiring use of available paid leave, reducing shift hours, tele-work options, assigning those “other duties as deemed necessary” like cleaning, housekeeping, and special projects that have been on the back burner, keeping safety and training requirements in mind. One manager I know has upped his cleaning efforts and assigned two additional staff members to assist with janitorial duties in the absence of their regularly assigned task availability. This one step kept two employees working while also securing a safer work environment for everyone.

  • When layoffs become necessary, communication is crucial in order to sooth the SCARF threats. First, give as much notice as possible. Second, tell each staff member in person if possible, or via video conference second best. Offer them information on what kind of public assistance options are available, like unemployment and health insurance options. Give laid-off employees reassurance of the company’s intentions with their recall status or be honest if it their layoff is considered a permanent reduction in force. Give the employees time to process the news and ask questions, and then listen with empathy. Supervisors should check in often with temporarily laid off employees and see how they are doing, expressing hopeful/eagerness to get them back to work and when they foresee that will happen, and be an encouraging mentor to them.

  • Supervisors should stay in daily touch with all their staff members, including those still coming into the business to work and those tele-working. Daily interaction via one-on one or group check-in meetings is important to morale. This time can be used to go over safety items including ergonomic workstation guidelines, current business news, collaborative short-term goal setting, shared accomplishments, and make sure to leave time for personal interactions. This can give employees a feeling of importance and care, reassurance of job status, a sense of certainty for the future, a feeling of autonomy to know they have a say in the goals they are involved with, relatedness to their supervisor and peers with trusted open dialog, and the relief of fairness with transparency.

  • As an ongoing support for employees physical, emotional, and financial health, employers can offer and PROMOTE great programs. These can be either through their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or by independent efforts to educate, train, and provide guidance plans. Topics to consider are physical and mental health, fitness and wellness, personal financial management and planning, self-understanding, attitudes, and improvements, relating better to others and productive conflict, and career planning and development. Managers that practice leading by example provide the best form of motivation for employees. These support efforts can all help towards independent preparedness.

All positions are ‘employees’, and the CEO should take the lead by showing this support to her direct reports, guiding them to follow suit with their assigned staff members, and making sure that everyone is on the same page, and stays on the same page. With full participation, all ‘employees’ have someone looking after them, especially in these times of crisis. But that isn’t completely true. The one at the top, the CEO, holds her own deck of cards. This is where the ultimate danger zone is for “business leader blues.” The top Executive can turn to a success coach, a mentor, and/or to their own strength and discipline to make sure and look out for their own overall well-being. By reaching out for assistance themselves, CEO’s will demonstrate to their leadership team the importance of self-care. If the top crumbles, the rest will surely follow.

By taking the responsibility of looking out for the best interest of employees seriously and doing all that they can now, business leaders can mitigate the obstacles down the road. When business begins the road to recovery, having a pool of already well-trained staff that is in a good state of mind, healthy, financially sound, and motivated, will be crucial for the organization’s successful progression. By keeping the staff that the business could afford to retain, and re-engaging the temporarily laid-off employees, companies will decrease the high cost of recruiting, selection, and training. These employees were once hired by the company with mindful thought, costly time, and stressful effort so there is good reason to value, respect, and take care of them. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and neither does a quality workforce.

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