#TRV2020 Session Recap – Helping Employees Cope with Crisis: Insights From 20 Behavioral Experts

July 21, 2020 Sarah Bloznalis

5-minute read

stressed worker

The global pandemic has forced us to change the way we operate, both in and out of the workplace. Organizations looking to successfully move forward in these unique times must first realize “this pandemic is as much a people crisis as it is a health crisis,” as Kurt Nelson puts it. 

In a WorldatWork 2020 Total Resilience Conference session, Behavioral Grooves Podcast co-hosts Kurt Nelson and Tim Houlihan teamed up to provide HR leaders guidelines for how organizations should work with employees to get through this crisis effectively, while also preparing for the new normal of work. 

Employees are human, too.

In May, Workhuman® conducted a pulse survey of more than 3,000 full-time U.S. workers to better understand how the pandemic is affecting employee experience. Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, 42% of respondents said they felt a sense of loneliness and isolation at least once a week in the previous two months.

Whether your organization is reopening, never shut down, or somewhere in between, there are still several stressors that can impact employee performance. Through more than 20 interviews with various scientists, authors, and business leaders, Tim and Kurt found that stress and isolation lead to: 

  • Reduced focus
  • Limited cognitive ability 
  • Increased use of heuristics and habits 
  • Emotional fatigue

If employees are feeling this stress, Tim points out, “they won’t produce, they won’t be effective in their jobs.” Simply put, he says, “happy employees are more productive employees.” As we navigate COVID-19, it is essential for organizations to be aware of these challenges and provide support to employees both professionally and emotionally.

Coping with the crisis

According to these behavioral experts, “companies need to have a plan for how to deal with the emotional side of the pandemic, as well as the health side.” The best way to do this? Create an Emotional Playbook. Kurt believes “leaders have a really important job because they set the tone by putting this playbook together,” so it is critical to get right.

Tim and Kurt break down the different components of their Emotional Playbook:

  • Build a Human Interaction Charter.
  • Implement human-centered processes.
  • Craft emotionally proofed communications.
  • Develop positive habits and routines.
  • Chart a clear path forward.

Build a Human Interaction Charter.

Think of this charter as your organization’s North Star, Tim suggests. “It’s a soft contract or a set of guiding principles. It’s the thing that you’re going to strive for.” It should include an organization’s values and expectations, with the goal of reaching a consensus on the best way to move forward through these stressful times. The key, Kurt contends, is to put the charter in writing and review it with everyone in the organization. “People’s brains under stress don’t operate as well,” Kurt explains, so it is necessary for companies to be transparent and candid with their employees, especially right now.  

Implement human-centered processes.

According to Kurt, implementing human-centered processes boils down to “making sure you are purposefully and proactively checking in with your employees in a consistent and respectful manner.” During such uncertain times, frequent and intentional check-ins are helpful for maintaining a productive and positive workplace. 

The pair suggests putting together what they call a “bootcamp.” This bootcamp is essentially “getting people together in order to share their feelings and to process things as a group.” Offering a safe space to discuss stressors both in and out of the workplace is a good opportunity to gauge employee wellness, brainstorm solutions, and begin implementing them. 

The last element regarding human-centered processes is what Tim and Kurt call “psychological safety tools.” According to them, psychological safety is “the primary key to effective teams.” They point to visual cues as a way to keep employees engaged and informed. One example is to use wristbands. By giving employees three wristbands – green (open to high-fives), yellow (elbows only), and red (no physical contact) – organizations can reduce friction and improve communication on a daily basis.

Craft emotionally proofed communications.

Tim believes the new normal of work should focus more on “how are you doing, rather than did you get that done?” The best way to do this? Communication. Intentional and candid communication is essential for creating a more human workplace. Most importantly, Tim believes, is that leaders “shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.” He continues, “but make sure you’re keeping employees informed as to where you are as we move forward.” 

Develop positive habits and routines.

Tim and Kurt view the pandemic as an opportunity. “It’s an opportunity to change or instill new positive habits. The old ways are no longer working, and we need to try to build something new.” Research shows that having positive habitsand routines reduces stress, so organizations should work to promote these positive habits in their workplace. 

Business leaders should work to purposefully create environments to drive positive behaviors. Kurt believes these new habits and routines “are a way for us to have some security, some consistency in our lives when everything seems uncertain.” 

Chart a clear path forward.

As we move forward, it’s important to be clear, open, and honest about what lies ahead for your organization and its people. One way to do this is by having short-term milestones. Tim believes these milestones are critical to paving a clear path forward. “The world is not predictable right now. Let’s focus on what we can change in the short term.” 

Organizations should also work to show employees “behind the scenes.” Transparency makes people feel safe, and the best way to achieve transparency is by not only showing who is making the decisions, but also why, and what it means for the organization. 

It is essential for organizations to create policies that better help their employees cope with the stress brought upon by this pandemic. Tim and Kurt emphasize this can happen at all levels of the organization. “It can be presidential, CEO-level, manager, co-worker. We are all a part of the solution.” 

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About the Author

Sarah Bloznalis

Sarah Bloznalis is a content marketing intern at Workhuman from Upton, Mass. She is a rising senior at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is studying management and political science.

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