Your Workers’ Brain on COVID-19: How Leadership Can Restart a Mindful Workplace

Your Workers’ Brain on COVID-19: How Leadership Can Restart a Mindful Workplace

The world today seems far from "normal." However, managers and employers need to understand how to implement the "new normal" for their workers through leadership, communication and input.

Everywhere we turn these days we hear people saying we’re living in a “new normal.” The operative word here, of course, is “normal.”

Indeed, the world feels new, but it is far from normal. Yet many people expect that when they return to the workplace following the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ll just show up and things will be just like when they left it. What they don’t realize is that the “new normal” will be very different in small and sometimes subtle and unexpected ways.

And it will be constantly changing. Did we ever expect to have a disruption the size of this pandemic, and did we imagine we’d be forced to adjust to its demands? This new normal is not reliable. A surge in positive cases may soon force us to return to home isolation yet again. Scientists tell us we are only just beginning to understand how this virus travels and behaves. All of this means that instead of expecting our world to return to normal, we have to do a better job in adapting to change.

Standing in our way is what some sociologists are calling “caution fatigue.” Today we can call it “COVID fatigue.” Either way, it describes a state of being that yearns to get us back to our “normal” habits—at work, at home, in our community, wherever we were and whatever we did before the virus landed on our shores.

This is the fast brain talking. The fast brain activates reactive and habitual behavior. It knows our daily habits and it puts us in a calm state when it takes over and does the driving. But caution fatigue is a barrier to the fast brain because we have so much more to process now within the slow brain, and it has created a heady mixture of stress, anxiety, isolation, and yes, disrupted habits and routines. We feel drained! Although we are trying the best we can, we cannot develop new habits, or even return to the old ones, because the world is constantly changing.

Think about it: The communities we live in are developing new guidelines every month for how we can gather, shop, dine, workout and more. When schools reopen in the fall—if they reopen—there will be another set of guidelines to learn. Travel is disrupted. Even the way we present ourselves, walk down the street, and visit with friends has new rules.

The information overload is intense. We don’t have the mental capacity to keep track of it all. Our brains, therefore, are tuning out. You may have noticed you are becoming less vigilant with disinfecting your hands, wearing a mask, or keeping social distancing. The fact is that you are not alone. After many weeks and months of experiencing a disruption in your routine, dealing with uncertainty, and feeling isolated, you are probably experiencing fatigue. This fatigue will cause us to become more lax in following the recommended guidelines and will put us in harm’s way. Brains like consistency and what we are experiencing is inconsistent, at best. So we are fatigued and distracted.

Leadership needs to understand the current state of their workforce when they invite them to return to their jobs. Some folks may be ready to come back to work while others may not. People, generally, have become more cautious, more analytical, more reliant on taking their time to figure in all the factors that now impact their lives and the lives of the people they love.

This means leadership needs to allow more time, not less, for people to ease back into the demands of their work. Assuming that everything will be fine is asking for trouble.

So from a human brain perspective, here are a few things leaders can do to help restart the workplace while catering to their workforce at the same time.

Prepare them for the return. When you have surgery, your doctor will sit with you and tell you what to anticipate. They do this so nothing comes as a shock. Do this for your workers. Show them what will be different; give them a floorplan of the office, where the hand washing stations may be, where they can get wipes or masks. Walk them through their reimagined environment so they’re mentally prepared that first day they walk through the door.

Create comfort. Make sure that when you are reconfiguring the pandemic-minded workplace, keep some of the old environment intact. Let them know that when they return there will be a few things the same, just the way they liked them. This will create a sense of co-ownership of the workplace and validate that it serves as a second home where they are welcome.

Minimize distractions. As we discussed above, your workers will be distracted because they have a lot on their mind. They are processing new information every day, every week, every month. So in order to make the workplace a calm environment, remove distractions that may contribute to heightened anxiety. That could include getting rid of screens showing the news, or creating email filters that blast headlines every hour. Recognize the elements from the outside world that may raise the emotional temperature of your workplace. No one can get away from headlines of political unrest of rising pandemic numbers, but make the workplace a respite from them.

Be transparent. With so much uncertainty and stress driving daily life, leadership needs to be open about change. Let workers know beforehand that the organization has thought everything through to create a calm and safe workplace. Explain to them the reasons for these changes. Give them a vision of what potential changes are coming in the next month, six months, or year. Create check-ins, townhalls, one-on-ones that are all in the spirit of keeping them updated and involved.

Get their input. Finally, transparency is best when it invites feedback. Ask workers what they want changed. Ask them what they will need in the work environment that will make them safe. More PPE? Greater social distancing among desks? More hand sanitizer? More remote work options? Whatever it is, poll your workers for input. After all, they are as part of your company as you are, so when both sides work in tandem, this transition—and all the transitions to come—will only be easier.

Remind individuals to focus on what’s in their control. The simple fact is that we can't control what’s happening in other organizations, states, or countries, so it is important to remind everyone to control what they can control. Individuals can control that they wear a mask, get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, find ways to relieve stress which includes exercising regularly, remain positive by expressing gratitude and stay physically separated yet socially connected. As a leader continue to impress upon people that while it is good to be socially aware, it is more critical to consciously narrow their focus on what they can control.

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