By Stuart Taylor FIML
As businesses around Australia prepare to slowly return to on-site work and resume something resembling normal operations after an extended lockdown period, leaders should be mindful of some significant changes that have occurred in the mindset of many of their employees during this time, so they can be prepared to soften the transition from home to the workplace.
After several months of prolonged uncertainty and radically different ways of working, many employees have been subject to increased anxiety, worry and stress, along with the detrimental effects that these conditions can have on their physical wellbeing. And while returning to work may suggest a welcome reprieve for staff, there are some obvious, as well as other more subtle stressors associated with the return that have the potential to lead to rapid burnout for some employees.
Good leaders and managers can help to mitigate these stressors though, and thus ensure the successful resumption of business and a positive working culture. Here are a few suggestions for how leaders may go about this.
Clarity of purpose
Staff may very well feel overwhelmed by the prospect of returning to their regular workload and setting and may even anticipate an additional load associated with ‘catching up’ after lockdown. It’s important therefore that leaders take stock of the purpose of the work that they’re asking of their staff and communicate this with clarity. Leaders will also need to identify what’s achievable for their staff, what work needs to be continued as it did before, and what can be done differently. Being clear about the purpose of their work can help staff to feel a sense of hope and possibility, rather than imminent burnout and decline.
An important quality at the best of times, empathy is going to be even more critical for leaders to support their teams in the return to work. Understanding the challenges that each person is facing can help you to devise workable solutions together. It’s not just about focusing on the tasks though – leaders should check in with each individual employee and take the time to really understand how they are going in regard to their energy, motivation and optimism for work.
Coming from a basis of empathy, truly compassionate leadership is about taking the necessary action to support your staff when they need it most. A compassionate leader listens and hears what their staff have to say and will take strong, decisive action to support them. It’s likely that leaders will need to be more adaptable and flexible with staff needs as they navigate the transition back to work and this is likely to benefit everyone in the long run.
Springfox recently released its biennial 2020 Global Resilience Report, which explores the state of mental health and resilience. The report shows that prior to lockdown and enforced working from home arrangements, many Australians were already experiencing excessive worry, fatigue and self-criticism. The research also found that 40% reported low levels of personal resilience and were at risk of ‘occupational burnout’. With the effects of lockdown creating even further stresses for people, it’s going to be especially important to help staff to build resilience.
Leaders can learn resilience and can help their staff to develop this invaluable life skill by building professional resilience training into the return to work plan. The report found that engaging in resilience-building training improves resilience by 38% and positively impacts mental illness by 32% on average compared to an antidepressant which on average sits between 3-9%.
Smarter ways to connect
Most people who have sat in back to back Zoom meetings over the last few months will tell you just how exhausting it is. So, while there may be a temptation to continue with a predominantly online meeting platform because of its perceived efficiencies once you return to the office, a blended approach to connection is actually much healthier for your team – ideally a multimodal mix of individual, one-on-one and group time.
And finally, leaders can play a very important role in supporting their staff’s resilience and wellbeing by encouraging them to stay connected with family and friends, to focus on the things that bring joy, including finding time away from work to enjoy hobbies or other things, to prioritise sleep and exercise and to nurture a realistically optimistic view of the situation at hand, rather than focusing on the negative. Springfox’s report found that investing in employee well-being effectively reduced mental illness risk factors by up to 67%.
There are still many unknowns when it comes to navigating the complex return to office-based work for so many of us after such an unusual and unprecedented few months but leaders who practice compassionate leadership driven by empathy and understanding will have the best possible chance of succeeding in a smooth transition to a new normal.
Stuart Taylor is a Fellow at IML ANZ. He is the CEO and co-founder of Springfox, which provides resilience programs for individuals and organisations.
Help your team thrive despite challenges
Successful leaders need to be ready to confront the challenges of this rapidly changing world by finding their leadership edge. That requires high levels of resilience, integrity, adaptability and compassion to prepare yourself and your team for uncertainty and complexity.
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