Opinion: What leaders can do to ease their employees’ psyches
Over the past few weeks, leaders across every industry have asked a version of the same question: What do I tell my people? Without a clear roadmap for a crisis of this magnitude, they might struggle about how to respond.
The good news: Brain science can offer some clarity. By understanding what’s going on inside our minds, we can start building new habits that better equip us to show up for our teams, our families and ourselves.
What the science says
If you’ve ever felt your brain shut down during stressful periods, there’s a reason why. Given a choice, humans are motivated by either the expectation of threat or of reward. Threats loom larger, cognitively speaking: We might reach for candy, but we’ll run from fire.
As far back as 2007, scientists have found that our sense of threat can be organized across three basic levels. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. Think of Level 1 as an alertness to danger, like seeing a hurricane forming not too far from where you live. Level 2 is a moderate sense of alarm—the storm has made landfall. Level 3 is full-blown panic, because destruction has begun.
For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic should be a Level 1 threat. We are aware of danger, but with the right precautions we won’t risk immediate harm. Yet, so many of us treat it as Level 2 or 3, causing our prefrontal cortex to shut down and our rational thinking to give way to panic. When that happens, we lose all ability to think critically, navigate complexity and make sound decisions.
By that logic, leaders have a responsibility to the health of their people and organization to minimize the amount of threat that is felt. Here is what that looks like in practice.
New normal, new behaviors
Psychological threat is a lofty concept, so it is helpful to focus on serving three specific social needs: certainty, autonomy and relatedness. Certainty is our need to feel like we know what’s going on around us; autonomy is the need to feel in control and relatedness is the need to feel part of a group.
Here’s how you can create “buffers” for these needs for yourself and others in creating and sustaining a new day-to-day routine.
For yourself: Set daily time limits on news consumption—say, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon. This will help satisfy the craving to keep checking throughout the day, whenever a burst of uncertainty hits.
For others: Communicate to your team early and often when you learn new information. This should help create some much-needed transparency, and help people stop wondering if they are getting all the necessary facts.
For yourself: Determine what’s within your control, such as personal hobbies, and make time for them. By being intentional about using your time, rather than accidental, you can begin to focus your attention on what’s within your control, rather than outside it.
For others: Allow for greater flexibility in teams’ scheduling and personal time, especially for parents. The new working reality is less structured than it used to be, and there are fewer support systems for employees. Try to become one of those support systems where possible.
For yourself: Hold daily stand-up meetings, preferably on camera, to align on core projects together. Since you’re not bumping into folks in the kitchen or in the hallways, frequent, planned interactions are the next best thing.
For others: Encourage people to call loved ones and keep close connections strong. Loneliness is a known health hazard, so to the extent possible, communicate that you’re making your employees’ sense of belonging known and valued. That extends to how they stay in touch with people in their personal lives.
Brain science can’t solve the hard problem of this crisis—namely, eradicating COVID-19. But with the right application, it can remind us that how we respond to hard times can often make just as big an impact to our mental health and the health of those we hold dear.