From an emotional perspective, COVID-19 is beginning to take its toll. The newly unemployed are facing profound emotional trauma. For many in leadership, the agony comes in corporate belt-tightening and calculating how deeply to make the cuts, all while grappling with the very human impact and the reality of delivering the news while a global pandemic is still in full force with no end in sight.
One CEO friend was in tears after laying off 25% of their workforce. Shortly thereafter, he began receiving supportive emails from terminated employees thanking him for the wonderful years they’d enjoyed at the company and wishing him and the remaining team well. Another CEO friend FaceTimed me in shock after having to furlough a whopping 62% of their company, and hearing how the remaining workers immediately began an employee food bank to help those who would be in greatest need.
The hardest part for many leaders is having to deliver devastating news over Zoom, rather than in person. Equally difficult is the knowledge that the usual outplacement services provided during mass layoffs are likely ineffectual as the job market is essentially non-existent at the moment and no one can predict when it will bounce back.
On the homefront, while social distancing is critical to our shared efforts to stop the spread and severity of COVID-19, the isolation created by reduced physical contact with the outside world — while compelled by county or state ordinances to stay at home, especially if living alone — is real. This emotional toll, this loss of freedom and being cut off from your social circles, has been likened to grief in a New York Times piece by therapist Lori Gottlieb. This is compounded by the passage of time. Compared with even a week ago, the extent to which I miss my kids and friends, even hugs from my coworkers, is palpable.
For me, watching Dr. Anthony Fauci calmly explain the facts or shake his head in disbelief at a press conference no longer brings me the relief it did even a week ago. I’m also keenly aware that the heavy state of the world right now is wearing on my workforce. One employee shared with me that he feels so isolated living far from his family and never imagined how much he could miss his work colleagues. Another is doing her best to stay productive, simultaneously taking care of her baby, while her husband, a first responder, continues to work 72-hour shifts outside the home. Yet another, worried she may have the virus, has avoided hugging her son for days but dares not tell him why.
In the midst of a day to day existence that feels far from normal, what can I as CEO do to help? How can I boost morale or help soothe my team’s fears? I believe there are a few things I can do: I can be truthful (both about my gratitude and my vulnerability); I can listen and be empathetic; and I can try to find ways to help everyone feel as stable and connected as possible. I can also try to give people something to look forward to each week if not every day.
It has long been reported in published psychological research, that anticipating a future pleasurable situation can help us better tolerate a difficult present one. The research establishes that by giving us something positive to “look forward to” later, we can build up the ability and motivation to tolerate temporary pain or frustration. I recall when my mother was first diagnosed with cancer her oncologist telling me how critical it was for me to plan things for my mom to look forward to in order to keep her spirits up and help her fight the cancer.
In my post last week, I talked about how my company is doing daily Grokker stretch videos over Zoom to stay connected and take time before each meeting to socialize before getting down to business. This has been immensely helpful, enabling us to cope a little better day to day with working from home and maintaining our personal relationships.
But as the “newness” of the situation wears off and we spend more time in this COVID-19 reality, I’m upping the ante to create a greater sense of stability in my messaging to employees, as well as my loved ones. I’m sharing updated resources like a fantastic video by Dr. David Price, Head of Pulmonary at Cornell Medical Center to help them understand the importance of taking the shelter at home guidelines seriously and how to follow the rules to stay safe or this interview with Bill Gates on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Fighting the Coronavirus.
But I’m also reassuring them that there are new things we can look forward to and relieve stress with — as we stay engaged together in the “fight.” This week we played a company-wide game of competitive trivia over video conferencing during our weekly Thursday afternoon “happy hour” because we all need to let off steam and bond while we survive this ordeal as a team. We also started sharing a round robin style of “best thing we streamed over the weekend” by genre at the end of our Monday afternoon stretch break.
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, I think we need to focus on doing our best to keep our spirits up and to help others do the same by creating some greater sense of fun and stability during a remarkably unstable time. Having little things to look forward to like a daily group stretch break, a weekly team trivia quiz, a virtual TGIT, or whatever else builds even a small yet connecting and diverting respite into your week will make a meaningful amount of difference over time. We will get through this, the key is to get through it together.