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Life after lock down – Psychological strategies for managersApril 2020

Life goes on in spite of the Coronavirus Pandemic – where #’stay home’ became the new normal. This world-imposed level of isolation and social distancing seemed surreal and nay on impossible to totally comprehend for the majority of people.

Fear, confusion and anxiety have entered the fray with many people’s first reaction being disbelief especially as it all seemed several persons removed and somewhere over there initially. With daily mortality figures rising exponentially– the gradual realisation was morbid and grim as we endeavour to stay as safe as we are able to.

With the details of the new so called ‘3 stage government plan’ emerging it looks as though we can at least begin to consider a return to normality in the not too distant future. But we now realise that the hidden killer Covid 19 will remain with us for some time after restrictions are lifted and we will all have to continue to take measures to keep this insidious and lethal invasion in abeyance.

In the absence of what the ‘new normal’ will look like accompanied by the dawning reality of continuing to face this dreaded adversity for an unknown period of time – this article explores the psychological impact this pandemic is having upon everyday people and their wellbeing particularly as they are re-establishing life beyond lockdown. Furthermore, it considers how managers of businesses might help their workforce return to work in a healthy and supportive manner.

People don’t like uncertainty

It is a known and undisputed fact that, as a species, we are creatures of habit and prefer certainty rather than a prolonged state of not knowing – this is largely adaptive and required for survival. The recovery of global health in the face of this coronavirus attack, however, leaves the whole of mankind unsure of any certain future and this inevitably generates a strong threat or alert response in the limbic system (the most ancient part) in the human brain. This is likely to deplete our resources somewhat as we are compelled – for survival – to navigate our way around our environment taking all the necessary steps to minimise the risk of infection.

Antidote: Create as much certainty as you can muster in the workplace. For those with managerial responsibilities, keep people informed and be transparent about their immediate future and company priorities aligned to the issues the company is grappling with in the aftermath (e.g. financial, supply chain, staff reduction) to lessen anxiety about even more uncertainty. Allow people to voice their concerns and be as honest as possible without alerting more concern. Make sure that behavioural management of risk reduction is established so that it becomes habitual rather than ‘special’ measures.

Humans are facing individual and collective mortality more than ever before

With this particular strain of coronavirus, the potential of being stricken by the disease either in ourselves and/or close relatives and friends woefully hangs over us all. It is all pervasive and the figures across the world have yet to instil hope. In human behaviour – there will inevitably be an increase in the degree of symptom monitoring (as we have been advised to do so) and, for some, neurotic types worrying will escalate. These are after all matters of life and death.

Antidote: Encourage people to ‘bracket off ‘ the necessity to regularly monitor their health from other aspects of their lives. Support them with a mental shift away from becoming preoccupied with the constant reminders (of checking temperature and other symptoms) which might dominate their thoughts – more akin to the need to check for lumps and bumps in intimate parts of their bodies (i.e. it’s just a necessary precaution). Run wellbeing sessions to manage stress and develop healthy immunity education resources.

People are experiencing/will experience loss and death of close friends, colleagues and relatives

With the grim toll of the deaths due to Covid 19 it will be inevitable that someone will know someone who sadly lost their life. Grief is all around and we are all facing the worst loss of life due to an unseen killer in known history. The fact is – grief has become a collective experience as we mourn those we love, those we admired and those who we consider heroes on the front line. The everyday stories touch all our lives and grief and loss may underscore our memories when this is all over.

Antidote: In the workplace promote acceptance that grief and loss related experiences are pervasive. Remind people that it is a normal human process which they will get through in time and create a culture to enable people to talk about death and dying as – for now at least – part of our everyday reality. Accentuate hope for those of us who survived and honour those staff members lost with lasting tributes of their lives such as a roll of honour or celebration of remembrance. Offer formal bereavement support for those worst affected by the losses.

Managing the wellbeing of staff in the aftermath of returning to work in a destabilised local and world economy

Many employees returning to work after the lockdown has been lifted will face a range of unravelling new ways of working alongside accompanying anxiety and stress. It will take time and effort to return to business as usual. It is likely that new strategies will be developed and previously effective business models adjusted. New responsibilities might be required and workforce distribution and roles and practices negotiated. Proactive change management at this stage is crucial to stabilise employee experiences.

Antidote: Seize the opportunity to review your business. What are your new priorities and setbacks due to Covid 19? How will you realign your business trajectory to its earlier projections? Your main asset is your workforce – appraise them of the problems the organisation faces in a culture of transparency and candour– invite them to take ownership of the challenges and to collaboratively generate novel ideas and solutions. Work with partners across the local community and further afield – they will also be seeking solutions (globally and locally).

People are social animals and the need to socially isolate and work within the 2-metre rule impacts on this basic requirement of what it is to be human

Generally speaking, human beings require closeness and intimacy with other humans. It has hitherto been an essential, adaptive aspect of survival of the species. However, conversely, social isolation has become a new necessity for survival of the species – and it will have a lot to answer for. People have become isolated from others not immediately living under the same roof. Children have become detached from their grandparents and some romantic relationships have had to go on hold. Tensions have arisen in some households where due to a mixture of anxiety, stress, fear, bereavement and boredom interpersonal relationships have become strained. Family holidays are notoriously times of great strain – and, although novel, this family gathering will not have felt like much of a holiday to many people.

Antidote: Employers need to take these background issues into account when their workforce returns to work. Some people will return with a deep sense of relief -as work provides them with structure, purpose and fulfilment. Others will continue to worry about social distancing and not spreading/catching the virus. It is an imperative that they are informed on return as to the continued measures being implemented for safety. It is also an opportunity for work to replace social lives albeit on a temporary basis. Consider enhancing the social aspect of work where staff come together in ways they might not have before (of course, this could remain on a virtual basis) – offer quiz breaks or talent breaks or daily/weekly appreciation/recognitions for staff who have gone the extra mile for the business as part of the working day. Reward staff for social cohesion – which is necessary to take the business forward.

I wish you well in your endeavours.


In Honour Of Midwinter – January 2020

The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many of us during this period in the year will be feeling a mixture of nostalgia following the ending of an old year combined with excitement and/or trepidation for the unfolding of a new year. What lies ahead for us all – what challenges and delights might we encounter as we move out of the depth of winter into spring time?

The extract above which is the final verse of the poem entitled ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost (see full poem below) and the imagery and emotion it elicits reminds me of our liminality and the essence of our existence. Liminality because there is a sense of being drawn deeper into the lovely darkness and deepness of the wood and yet the essential imperative of our lives is that there is business to be done and commitments to uphold. We are always on the threshold between night and day and life and death – in other words – what it is to be human.

Often this poem is associated with death and despair but we could view it as a reminder of the vitality of life – that we do have things to do before we sleep or die and winter is often a time for quiet contemplation of that notion.

During this period between winter and Spring, we are betwixt and between the old year that we are leaving behind, with many still not fully engaged in the year ahead of us as we are caught between letting go of the old whist we bring in the new – a ritual many of us mindfully engage in on New Year’s Eve.

The words ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (Burns 1788) literally translates from old Scottish dialect meaning ‘Old Long Ago’, ‘Old long since’ or ‘For the sake of old times’ and is about love and friendship in times past. The Auld Lang Syne lyrics referring to ‘We’ll take a Cup of Kindness yet’ relate to a drink shared by men and women to symbolise friendship. It is a song of hopefulness and calls upon songsters to celebrate that which has gone before – and invest in that which lies ahead. A bittersweet sentiment and one which has been central to Scottish originally and latterly British New Year’s Eve tradition for several hundreds of years.

Featured in so many rites of passages and stories where there is an element of passing through the dark into the light (from despair into hope) the ‘dark night of the soul’ is often heralded as one of the greatest and most painful transitions back into daylight again. Thomas Moore (2004) suggests that ‘a dark night of the soul is not a psychological syndrome, but a quest for meaning during life’s darkest hours: the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, ageing and illness, career disappointments or just an ongoing dissatisfaction with life’. The dark night is a challenge to restore ourselves and to become someone of substance, depth and soul and further by using these darker times as an opportunity to reflect and delve into the soul’s deepest needs, we can find a new understanding of life’s meaning (Moore 2004).

Whilst all the above are rich in metaphor and imagery, they nonetheless can have a real impact upon people making sense of their lives and their losses – and I truly hope this short blog inspires you all to make the most of the journey ahead of you.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923) from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.

AULD LANG SYNE LYRICS IN ENGLISH:


Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

 CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

 CHORUS

We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

 CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

 CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

 CHORUS