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Managing fear at work

“Fear is predominant in just nearly everyone right now. We need to give our employees the skillset to manage stress and to be able to navigate all the uncertainty. We need to individually and collectively take aligned action in the face of the coronavirus fear” [Erik Gabrielson, Our Fear Never Sleeps]

We’ve talked about the Covid Effect and to dig deeper we’re looking at the fear factor in this week’s article: how we manage fear in the workplace.

Fear propels us into fight or flight mode so a little fear isn’t a bad thing as it sharpens our game and gives us a heightened awareness. A natural level of fear can go a long way in terms of making sure we are on time, present and offering the best version of ourselves that we can. Extended periods of intense fear however can have the opposite effect, spiralling us downwards into inactivity, low esteem and a paralysing state of anxiety.

Within the Covid Effect, as we all try to establish our new working framework once more, there are naturally fears about job security, the economy, our place at work, worries over changes, health (of course) and much more. Fears have arisen as colleagues have been kept on while we may have been furloughed. There are also different pressures coming from a variety of sources which we need to be mindful of: home life, family health, financial pressures and more.

From a leadership point of view, our approach should include:

Making work human

We work with people who have their own set of unique circumstances. We should remain compassionate, prepared to listen and aim to understand. One size rarely fits all. A lovely idea I saw this week was a corridor with a line of individual team photos all along it. People were encouraged to pick up a post-it and write what they appreciated about any of the people and add it under their photo. This is a great way to remind people why they matter.

Honesty and realistic representation

Above all, being open and transparent is one of the most powerful ways to alleviate negative feelings. Fear is usually based on the unknown. Once concerns are aired and assumptions are articulated, fear translates into other emotions that are less debilitating and easier to manage.

Clear communications

Tell people what you know in a straightforward, undramatic way. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know but you’ll let people know as soon as you do. Be up front and unafraid of imparting bad news. An honest delivery will help everyone as you are removing the potential for people’s imaginations to run wild.

Awareness and empathy

Look out for tell-tale signs that someone might be suffering. Unusual behaviour, outbursts, low productivity, even aggression – be vigilant of anything untoward but also remain open to colleagues who don’t show any outward signs – fear can take up residence at any level with differing expressions of it. It could even be that someone is turning up to work all of the time, not taking breaks as they are fearful of losing their job. Even if you can’t help immediately, showing you have recognised their needs will be a good starting point.

A supportive, caring environment

An open door policy, regular communications, a willingness to listen and share are all valuable in providing support.

How do we manage fear within our teams?

When you are talking with your people, there are a few baseline things to note and communicate:

1 It’s important to start from a place where you know things can and will change. To believe that however you feel right now, things will get better. To have optimism is key – it’s part of your survival instinct.

2 Isolate the contributing factors that have culminated in creating a feeling within you that is unacceptable.

3 Don’t react at all or make any decisions until you know why things don’t stack up right now.

4 Know what you’re working with. Break it down and assess what is possible to improve upon. Base your thought process on fact only. For now, set aside anything that isn’t known or real.

5 Talk things through. Invite someone you trust to challenge your thinking. It’s an idea to put workplace fears into context with people outside of the organisation initially.

“To manage your stress is impossible to do. It’s your body reacting to your environment. You need to recognize the stress, then work with it and learn how to deal with it” (Dr Richard Citrin, Forbes, March 2020)

7 Once you are clear about your concerns, bring them into the workplace and arrange to talk things through with the appropriate people – managers, business owner, colleagues. Find out what is possible.

8 Take really good care of yourself – that means sleeping, eating and exercising to give yourself the energy to move forward. It sounds trite but it’s good advice.

9 Make a plan. Decide what needs to be done and what is viable. Through your planning, make decisions and navigate your way through.

10 Keep notes and refer back to see how you are making progress. Tackling things incrementally can sometimes feel like no progress is being made until you look back and see where you started and how far you have come.

Fear in the workplace is real. It can be disruptive and result in uncharacteristic behaviour. Fear can halt progress, productivity and positivity and it’s exhausting. It’s our job to be aware of it and support people individually, adopting good practice collectively, as we work through this current time.



Article by Robin Ryan, Forbes magazine

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