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People & Team


Leading a worried workforce: Are you supposed to be counsellors now?

Furlough has kept the wolves from the door, but it’s also left a lot of leaders trying to keep a worried workforce motivated and engaged.

For many business owners, that’s uncomfortable new territory. It throws up serious questions around how to keep people positive, how to manage fear and anxiety remotely and what boundaries leaders should be maintaining?

These are just some of the concerns that came up in our recent SME Q&A “Supporting you and your team in times of pressure”. We ran the session with the help of occupational psychologist Ru Bhugra. You can watch Ru’s expert thoughts in the video below [16 mins] or skim our session takeaways further down.

What principles do leaders need to remember?

  1. This crisis is depriving us all of two things that are central to our wellbeing. First our ability to predict what might happen and second, our ability to have some control over what’s happening to us. Powerlessness is at the heart of fear
  2. Anxiety is worsened by confusion and a lack of certainty about the future. Under these circumstances, some people start to imagine the worst and even catastrophise
  3. Emotion is contagious so leaders should aim to behave with deliberate calm to inspire confidence, respect and loyalty
  4. Show realistic (bounded) optimism by focusing on relatively short-term, manageable goals. This can build your trustworthiness and keep people focused on the known, rather than the unknown
  5. Nurture a collective spirit and common goals. Always use terms like “us” and “we” to make sure people don’t feel alone
  6. Give a remote workforce a sense of belonging by enabling teamwork and collaboration. Set up social events for both furloughed and non-furloughed staff
  7. Recognise and reward people and show them their work is meaningful, even under furlough. Include things people are doing not only for the business but to look after each other
  8. To help manage fear and anxiety amongst a worried workforce, find something to give people a sense of control over. Encourage staff to choose a course from the new government online learning platform The Skills Toolkit
  9. Show them you care about them as individuals, take time to that one-to-one or send a personal message, in addition to all-staff emails

What did business owners ask Ru?

  • QUESTION: “I’m finding employees often have widely different attitudes, mostly positive but some quite negative. Some of my staff people find it quite hard to take on board what I’m saying to them because there’s so much information.”

Ru’s response to this question focused on the need for more individual interactions with those staff so they can express their fear and anxiety away from the group. She stressed the importance of leaders and line managers listening to staff and how that alone can help neutralise anxiety in a worried workforce. She encouraged business owners to establish a consistent communications plan that includes group emails, smaller meetings and one-to-ones.

  • QUESTION: “Any tips for communicating with people who are completely disengaged or disillusioned?”

First of all, Ru advised speaking to these people separately to avoid negativity spreading (emotional contagion). She also suggested that employees might be disengaging as a way to show you they have a problem, a worry or an anxiety. It’s a way of letting you know. Ask them open questions to help them express their fear and anxiety and them try to move them into thinking about solutions.

  • QUESTION: “Some staff are being negative and causing issues because of it. I don’t think they’ve thought about it as anxiety or wondered what’s behind it psychologically – powerlessness and so on. Should I be trying to talk to them and help them understand that?”

It depends on the individual said Ru. Many people don’t take vulnerability very well and express it as anger or belligerence. She suggested that business owners use opinion leaders and influencers in their workforce to try and iron out negativity sideways, rather than top-down.

  • QUESTION: “People are looking to leaders to solve all kinds of emotional problems now. It’s a delicate boundary for business leaders. How do we make sure we’re not giving advice we shouldn’t be giving?”

Ru agreed. It’s a great compliment to you that people are coming forward with these problems, but leaders should be aware of the boundaries. Make sure you know about the UK’s main mental health and counselling services. Have the resources to hand or appoint a mental health first aider to signpost the relevant resources.

  • QUESTION: “Some of my people were not happy to be furloughed. How do I make furloughed staff feel part of the company still?”

Ru agreed that it’s tricky when you’re managing two employee communities within one business. The first thing is to make sure people understand how you made the part-furlough decision in the first place. Then if any opportunities come up, give furloughed people something meaningful and important to do. For example ask them to come up with suggestions themselves about how to keep furloughed teams active and socially involved.

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