The COVID-19 pandemic is a danger that impacts all of us and requires adjustments in nearly every corner of the globe. Although most countries have limited travel and have implemented social distancing policies and protocols, the human side of the required adjustments is a big challenge for individuals and organizations.
What do we know from our other crisis response work that has application in this crisis? Quite a bit. First, loss and fear and other emotions are experienced individually and there is not a right way to feel. The fear we may feel in response to corona virus-related threats is an appropriate reaction to danger and uncertainty. In addition to our primal fight or flight reaction, we need to adjust to the realities in front of us. That means seeking news and information from trusted resources, and again, being aware that fear manifests in everyone differently—there is no single correct model.
As leaders, we need to 1) acknowledge the crisis with calm and clarity, 2) listen to our constituents and not pretend we have all the answers, 3) be honest and forthcoming about what is known and steps we’re taking, and 4) remind people of their resilient nature and our capability to excel even in these difficult times. Over-communicating at a time of crisis is not a risk; withholding or whitewashing information is.
As employees and family members we are responsible to manage our own adjustments and emotional responses. Working from home with kids not at school may not be the scene you anticipated when you said you wanted more quality time at home with the kids, but here you are. Are there books you intended to read or board games you wanted to play? Can you ask the kids to do their part and watch “Frozen” another time while you take your conference call? As disruptive as the current environment is, try to maintain familiar routines. At times of crisis, the basics become even more important—good nutrition, 7-9 hours of sleep, regular exercise, plenty of water. Although social distancing is the new normal and the in-person rituals of family and friends support are on hold, that connection is more important than ever. So, we can rely on our smartphones and other technology to stay connected. And you don’t have to be perfect in the adjustments you make—balancing work and family demands, managing finances, relaxing, taking care of yourself and your family. Extend some grace to yourself and do the best you can. Doing so will make it easier to extend a similar grace to others.
Countries around the globe have dealt with the novel corona virus differently. Cases and fatalities vary widely—see coronavirus.jhu.edu—but the most aggressive steps to flatten the curve seem best in the face of such a challenge. South Korea did an exceptional job of getting testing to those at risk early in the onset, and Italy has opened more beds and arranged for more ventilators to try keep pace with their heightened needs. However in terms of coping with this stress, behavioral health services are limited. Most places outside English-speaking countries have very few mental health clinicians, and health plan reimbursement for such service is rare. Licensing of behavioral health specialists is also limited and stigma about mental health problems and treatment makes care even more inaccessible. However, our experience is that more locations are open to behavioral care and personal help-seeking in the wake of a crisis, and a professional crisis response is valued—and often can be a bridge to more comprehensive care.
One of the biggest indicators of how well an individual or organization will handle a crisis is how healthy they were the day before the crisis hit. Organizations vary a lot in terms of their cultures of health, and higher levels of employee engagement and wellbeing can be an enormous asset. EAPs and wellness coaching services have been in high demand with this crisis, as have webinars, flex time, newsletters, and other resources to help folks cope. Further, this crisis may be an opportunity to implement new wellness-oriented services that foster healthy behavior and employee engagement. What are some best practices we’ve seen? At the company level, David Nix of ConocoPhillips’ EAP began a weekly newsletter titled “Journey to Calm” that has been well-received. From the provider side, Dr. Gary McClain has a psychology practice in New York City and his writing gift and insights can be seen at justgotdiagnosed.com. Another example is Milan-based Laura Sinatra, head of EAPItalia, posting videos on their Facebook site urging calm and sacrifice.
Two examples of how to measure and impact health and engagement are also relevant. One is industry leader InfoTech and their Wellness Checkpoint offering. This multi-language health risk assessment is delivered in mobile app and laptop formats, and has helped thousands of employees and organizations quantify and understand their health risks to make positive change. The tool can be branded and configured to an organization and offered as mini-quizzes. For example, a recent addition to the tool is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Wellbeing Index—a five item questionnaire that can assess risk across a workforce and identify a baseline, compare with WHO benchmarks, and track change over time. Another is a resiliency bounce-back survey measuring both individual and organizational health. Both the Wellbeing Index and Resiliency surveys can be offered within a cover email or intranet site link to encourage employees to take a bite-size quiz to help assess and support resiliency in this changing environment. Another example is Belgium-based Pulso which offers EAP, consulting, and organizational assessment services. They have retained a research orientation from their origins at Leuven University, and evolved to be a leader in Europe and globally. The cliché, you can’t manage what you can’t measure applies to this area of wellness—for individual and organizational health.
Dutch trauma response expert at Boston University, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, has observed that trauma brings out the best and worst in people. How do you want to be remembered for handling this corona virus crisis? Flexible and Forgiving or Punitive and Profiteering? Clear and Compassionate or Impulsive and Impatient? During the bubonic plague of the mid-17th century when England was under siege, Isaac Newton invented calculus and Shakespeare wrote King Lear earlier in the century while other plagues shuttered theaters in London. You have an opportunity to define your mini-legacy and the impact you’ll have at work and at home and in your community. It may be another King Lear or it may be checking in on a neighbor to ask, “how are you doing; can I help with anything?” We are strong and resilient, and whether the legacies we’re creating will be big or small, we can all make a positive difference to address this crisis.