May the force be with you

May the force be with you

A crisis like this can exacerbate issues like depression, despair, and anxiety. It can also rekindle old traumas, warns Maullika Sharma

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Probably nothing in our collective memory compares even remotely to what the world is experiencing right now. Maybe the 2008 financial downturn has some resemblance, but it was not nearly as devastating for as many people across the world like this.

As many organisations have moved their entire workforce to work from home, there is a lot of talk about the mental health implications of this pandemic. Many are focusing on the mental health of their workforce, which is a very encouraging sign. Some of the challenges that stem from having a distributed workforce have already been addressed by many organisations as it is common to have teams that are not only scattered across different cities, but also different countries and continents. However, in the current scenario, not only is the entire workforce distributed but it is also plagued with anxiety and uncertainty. And, that’s got to have an impact on productivity. As a manager one must allow for it.

The anxieties and uncertainties that people may be experiencing are many ­— Will I survive this? Will my loved ones survive this? Who, if anyone, will I lose? Will my job survive this? Will my company survive this? Will my industry survive? Will the economy survive? Will my investments retain their value? How do I keep my productivity up when there is so much uncertainty? Where will all this end? Is there any point in even working so hard?

A deeper bond

There are also some additional stresses that the current work-from-home scenario poses for employees in corporate India (and these are possibly different from those in the West). Typically, in India people form relationships with their co-workers which extends beyond their professional relationship. With everyone now working remotely, people are missing that human connection with their co-workers. People have friends at work so there is a social aspect about coming to work, a sense of belonging to that space. Most youngsters live in the city alone, away from their families, and the workplace is the community they belong to. This has suddenly disappeared.

Often people have parents and children living in the same home, along with a spouse who is also working from home. Having space in the home for everyone to get uninterrupted space and work time is a challenge. Homes are typically small, which works because most people leave home for the most part of
the day. All that has now changed. No one is leaving for any part of the day. And each person, including the children, need space to attend to their work, or online classes. Another challenge that is proving to be a bit of an existential crisis is that no one has any household help as the maids are on paid leave. So, employees are having to work a lot more at home. Contrary to the popular belief of this being a bonus time to do things for which they never had any time, for many there hardly seems to be any spare time at all.
In such a scenario what can managers do to make this transition to work from home easier and more effective for themselves and their teams?

Being empathetic works

More than anything else, managers can listen, and offer empathy, acceptance without judgement, and trust in their employees’ abilities and work ethic. Most importantly, they must cut them some slack. These are challenging times — unprecedented and unimaginable in today’s world despite all the advances in science, or maybe because of it. Managers and organisations may also need to relook at what productivity means and how performance is evaluated during this period. Some of the traditional measures of productivity may not be relevant. When we emerge from this crisis we may be living in a fundamentally different world where the
evaluations of success and failure may need to be different. We hope that our new normal will be different — more inclusive, less competitive, more humanitarian, less cut-throat, more sustainable, less greedy, more local, less global, more introspective, less outward focused, more focused on the core values of self-actualisation, health, happiness, and relationships, less focused on consumerism, material wealth and acquisition. From a mental health perspective, there is something to be said for viewing employees as long-term assets of an organisation, rather than the more western review of their need quarter on quarter. I do realise that all this is a tall order, but what’s the downside of dreaming?

Build a community

Organisations should build a sense of community virtually, to replace the physical community that employees have lost. When people are feeling lost and uncertain, it is helpful to experience the sense of belonging that a community offers. Regular and frequent communications from top management help give employees confidence in the company’s ability to adapt to the current challenges. A manager should be able to pick up early warning signs of their teammates distress. Some of these are regularly missed meetings, missed deadlines, shabby appearance on video calls, no proactive communication, no response to outreach, sending messages of hopelessness and despair or messages that are dark. However, if one has never spoken to the team about mental health in general, and their mental health in specific, one may be hesitant to start, not knowing how to begin. But really, it is very simple. Just ask them how they are feeling? Talk about one’s own fears, vulnerabilities and emotions. That makes others comfortable to talk about theirs. Encourage them to take the time they need to cope with their mental health.

Most people deal with traumas by keeping themselves distracted with work. In the current scenario, that may not be easily possible. How does one ease their anxiety in the current scenario, knowing that the uncertainty is real? Remind them to stay anchored in the present and not look into the future and predict doom. Remind them that whatever happens they will be able to deal with it. Focus on building their resilience. Enquire about their coping strategies. Remember to always ask open-ended questions, leading with compassion, not judgement. And to do this effectively, managers must be conscious of their own emotions and coping strategies as they role-model their own resilience and focus on self-care.

(The author is a counsellor)