Even if your employees or clients have not been directly affected by COVID-19, fearful thoughts can create the same emotions and reactions as the experience itself. A full-blown drama can play out quickly in the mind like a Hollywood blockbuster movie — complete with stress and tension. Central to this drama are the starring roles of anxiety and depression and their supporting cast members of weariness, frustration and despair.
In times of resounding uncertainty, human nature is to turn to coping behaviors. Outside of working hours, these behaviors might include eating a pint of ice cream or binge-watching television. However, at work, coping can take on other appearances:
Denial and Avoidance
When someone denies that a problem exists or avoids it altogether, it can cause frustration for other people. With individuals, denial and avoidance can come across as an underlying “why bother” attitude. Within organizations, they can manifest as leadership teams who are unwilling to acknowledge or address critical concerns.
You can probably identify at least one or more people who refuse to wear masks or observe social distancing practices. Similarly, some employers did nothing to address COVID-19 until government authorities mandated action, even when employees repeatedly expressed safety concerns. In each of these cases, someone else was affected by another’s lack of response.
Passive-aggressive and Controlling Behaviors
When people feel like the world around them is out of control, they may attempt to gain control in other areas. This response can result in becoming obsessive about the details of projects (i.e., perfectionism). As the need for control grows, it can morph into the desire to micromanage another person’s project or, worse yet, trying to control another person’s actions altogether.
Within organizations, this response can become an even bigger concern if an employer applies “by the book” polices to attempt to control all aspects of employee behavior. For example, some companies have remote technology options but do not trust employees to be productive at home. These employers take a passive-aggressive stance by permitting telecommuting while treating employees with an underlying air of distrust or contempt.
When employees realize that they are the target of passive-aggressive or controlling behaviors, their response can be feelings of fear or anger. While the employee could choose to directly address concerns with the offender, most individuals will think twice before doing so at work, especially if the person to be addressed is their manager. Instead, their fear or anger may be released via a passive-aggressive response, gossip or avoidance behaviors. While these actions may provide temporary relief, none of them will ultimately release the stress.
It is often easier to identify passive-aggressive and controlling behaviors in others than it is to identify them within ourselves, but one thing will eventually become visible to everyone: Healthy working relationships erode the longer these types of behaviors continue. This erosion can manifest as a reduction in the quality or quantity of communication and work-related results, a lack of trust in the decision-making ability of oneself or others, and/or the severing of relationships altogether.
Overachieving and People-pleasing
Initially, it can be tempting to applaud overachieving and people-pleasing, as these employees are working hard. However, if these actions are motivated by stress rather than a love for the job or other people, the longer-term effects can be detrimental. For example, when managers cope by pushing their teams to constantly overachieve, they are applying undue pressure to employees who are already experiencing stress. To compound the problem, if the team is comprised of people who cope by people-pleasing, they will be apt to do whatever the manager asks. The vicious cycle will continue until something breaks — literally or figuratively — in the relationship or with the work itself.
Employees may even be feeling pressure from overachieving teammates to do projects that are not within their areas of expertise. Even in the best of times, it can be challenging to learn a new skill if it is out of a person’s comfort zone. What happens when this challenge is coupled with fear of job loss and/or with people-pleasing tendencies? Employees will feel overwhelmed. Instead of seeing learning as an opportunity for growth, they will view it as a pathway to anxiety, frustration and stress.
What Can We Do?
As training professionals, we are equipped to help employees and clients succeed when we understand the types of challenges they are facing. Whatever subject matter we are introducing to our audiences, we can benefit from understanding the special circumstances they are encountering on the job. Moreover, we can recognize them within ourselves.
While stress may never fully disappear at work, we can proactively prepare to address it in a constructive manner. Listed below are a few tips to help:
Acknowledge: Before reacting to a situation, stop to ask yourself if the basis of the situation or the desired reaction is rooted in a coping behavior.
Prepare: Plan to be gracious with yourself and others to the best of your ability, even before you are faced with challenges.
Encourage: Share this knowledge with your colleagues in ways that they can better understand themselves and their co-workers.
Instead of coping by going ape, choose to provide hope by going A.P.E.: acknowledge, prepare and encourage. In doing so, you can rewrite the script of the moment. As writer T.F. Hodge says, “Your life experience is a moving picture, of which you are writer, director, performer, producer and critic.” A moment of stress can turn into a moment of success when emotional drama gives way to peace and the ability to refocus our minds. Now, get out there (figuratively speaking), and go APE!