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How the pandemic compounds stress at work for managers

STRESS AT WORK

The unfolding pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus is very effectively compounding the stress at work for managers and business owners. The new reality is remote working from home and the increasing uncertainty of maintaining business continuity.

Depending on individual stress mechanisms, a person’s response to these stressors can range from severe work stress to increased focus, mobilization, and creativity in the face of an unusual challenge.

During my coaching sessions, I regularly work with managers and business owners experiencing both types of reactions. I help them effectively deal with stress, change their perspective on difficult, complex situations, and develop ideas for new, out-of-the-box actions.

I want to focus this article on five phenomena (stressors) that represent a new category of challenges for virtually every manager I work with.

OVERLOAD

Overload is of course a result of the very essence of remote work – many hours of uninterrupted sitting in front of the monitor during group and individual online meetings. Despite the many advantages of videoconferencing, such as no logistical issues between meetings, there are also many new burdens on the body such as:

  • Many hours of increased visual concentration,
  • Many hours of rigid sitting (“to be seen”),
  • The disappearance of natural breaks at work (for coffee, a walk, lunch, a cigarette, or simple movement necessitated by physical movement between meetings),
  • Conflicting sensory information for the mind. Sight and hearing register closeness with other people during a videoconference meeting, while senses of touch and smell are not activated.

 

To reduce your level of overstimulation, you can try incorporating a few elements into your daily routine to take your mind off things and reduce stress at work. These can include:

  • Regular breaks from home for movement, walking and gymnastics (e.g. 5-10 minutes every 45 minutes),
  • 10-15 minutes of relaxation with eyes closed after lunch,
  • Afternoon nap 15-20 minutes,
  • Evening meditation,
  • Videoconferencing while standing or moving (e.g. walking),
  • Videoconferencing with the video function turned off,
  • Avoiding staring at a computer or cell phone screen 2 hours before bedtime.

 

LOSS OF THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN WORK AND HOME

Symptoms

From my observations, the disappearance of the work-home boundary while working remotely from home creates the following challenges for the managers involved:

  • Extension of working hours,
  • Intrusion of work into private life. For example, an employee’s partner practically starts attending their partner’s company meetings from behind the fridge,
  • Intrusion of private life into work. E.g., children and pets running around in the background, the visible background of private space encouraging other employees to ask personal questions, etc,
  • Increasing frustration or stress at work when other homemakers “get in the way” of difficult meetings,
  • Conflicts with other household members resulting from overlapping physical work zones,
  • Lack of buffer time to reflect and “shake off” the workday during the journey home, which simply isn’t there in remote work,
  • Less time for recovery and relaxation at home, which increasingly becomes associated with the workplace,
  • The need for ultrafast “switching” between personal and professional roles and different communication styles
  • Increasing insomnia problems associated with going to bed with your mind working at full speed – trouble falling asleep or falling asleep quickly and waking up prematurely in the middle of the night,

How can you manage stress?

To reestablish healthy boundaries between work from home and personal life you can, among other things:

  • Restore physical boundaries between work and personal life, e.g., by physically separating your workspace (even if it’s a mini-secretary in the corner of the room), covering/shielding your computer when you’re done, or cleaning your laptop off the dining table right after you’re done so that the workstation you leave behind doesn’t subconsciously affect your personal life,
  • Set realistic and nonnegotiable (with myself) hourly limits for the workday, beyond which I no longer answer work-related e-mails or phone calls,
  • Regularly discuss with other household members the needs, feelings, and challenges associated with the overlap between the personal and professional spheres. The more regular these conversations are, the less stress accumulates in each household member,
  • Reestablish a buffer time between work and private life, e.g., going for a 30-60 minute walk immediately after finishing work to return to family life with a clear head,
  • Increase levels of mindfulness and self-reflection about your professional and personal roles and the different communication styles these roles require. For example, it is very important for a naturally tasked manager who works from home to be able to vary this interpersonal style in communicating with their family,
  • In-depth self-reflection in the area of beliefs about work and work-life relationships.

 

GETTING CLOSER TO YOUR EMPLOYEES AND THEIR CHALLENGES

The growing pandemic and remote working is forcing the development of new attitudes and soft skills for those managers who want to effectively support their teams and retain the best employees. To achieve this, managers first need to strengthen the attitudes and soft skills that enable them to get to know their employees better.

Of the attitudes needed, we can mention:

  • Interest in employees and their challenges during the pandemic,
  • Responsibility for other people,
  • Authenticity,
  • Patience,
  • Trust in the wisdom of the team,
  • Kindness,
  • Closeness,
  • Courage (needed, for example, to talk about difficult challenges or admit ignorance),
  • Suspension of judgement (setting aside one’s own experiences, beliefs, values, etc.),
  • Empathy.

 

Key soft skills include:

  • Asking effective open-ended questions for discovery,
  • Deep listening on multiple levels (reading between the lines),
  • Conducting coaching and supportive/facilitative conversations,
  • Inspiring and integrating the team around a deeper sense of purpose,
  • Creating a good organizational atmosphere on a daily basis,
  • Ability to talk about difficult emotions and feelings,
  • Remote facilitation of group meetings,
  • Skill in calming one’s emotions, calming the mind,
  • Understanding differences in interpersonal styles,
  • Understanding the individual motivators of each employee.

 

The managers who work with me who possess the above soft skills view the pandemic as a time of unique opportunity to become closer relationally with their teams and a moment to define a new team approach to many problems.

LESS CONTROL OVER ACTIONS

Symptoms

The pandemic and remote working of the team generates powerful work stress for those managers who based their management style primarily on commanding (dictatorial) behavior or strong, continuous control of subordinates’ actions (up to micromanagement).

The problems of such managers during the pandemic have two sources:

  • Remote work significantly reduces the possibility of ongoing control of employee behavior. There is no physical control at all, and constantly asking about the status of activities over the phone drains the manager’s own energy incredibly,
  • A micromanaging style of management quickly accustoms employees to the fact that a) the boss will make decisions for them anyway, because “they always know better”, and b) that they do not have to think about anything or plan their own actions because all the time the boss thinks for them. When such a team begins to work remotely, the problems begin – reactive, devoid of efficiency, used to low creativity, employees wait for instructions from their boss, who in turn, tries to manage as before, increasingly losing energy and with growing concerns (often correct) that employees’ commitment is reducing while working from home.

What replaces less control?

However, the above challenges are not experienced by managers who need less control thanks to their greater typically leadership skills, such as:

  • Thinking and planning strategically to keep “fires” out on an ongoing basis,
  • Involving employees in defining business strategies and action plans,
  • Differentiating between simple or complicated situations from complex and chaotic ones,
  • Effective prioritization of tasks and selectivity in deciding what to do and what not to do,
  • Management by objectives combined with giving employees decision-making authority in their areas of responsibility,
  • Ability to flexibly and individually select management techniques to suit the needs, level of knowledge, skills and motivation of each employee,
  • Confidence in the work process and collaboration instead of anxiety leading to unhealthy control,
  • Regular, frequent, open, transparent, honest and structured communication with the team,
  • Understanding what each employee does and does not value,
  • Individually appreciating and motivating employees nonfinancially,
  • Inspiring to action (often leading by example),
  • Leading change (change leadership rather than change management).

 

The COVID-19 pandemic and remote working significantly reduces the ability to monitor employee behavior on an ongoing basis. That’s why to effectively manage employees in this uncertain time, managers at all levels urgently need to develop their leadership and soft skills in addition to their managerial skills.

Above all, what is needed in uncertain, complex, crisis-ridden times are flexible, smart, and fast-acting leaders, not efficient work administrators accustomed to an unchanging operating context.

UNCERTAINTY AND THE LACK OF PROVEN RECIPES FOR SUCCESS

Symptoms

The COVID-19 pandemic and Poland’s growing political instability are also causing increased uncertainty and the impression of business treading on very shaky ground, where people find less and less certainty on which to  base their strategies, decisions and action plans.

Stress at work in managers is caused, among other things, by uncertainty in:

  • Health and life – yours, your loved ones and your employees,
  • Team availability (due to COVID-19 mass illnesses),
  • Continuity of project activities (also due to illnesses),
  • Long-term planning (when every week is full of unexpected events),
  • Solvency of clients (many of them go bankrupt),
  • Achievement of business goals (especially if the company operates in an industry heavily affected by a pandemic or its prevention efforts),
  • Employment and continued existence of the company (in the case of exponentially deteriorating company performance).

The unpredictable world of VUCA

These examples perfectly illustrate the nature of the world known as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

The mechanisms of such a world are generally more familiar to special forces soldiers, marine navigators, scientists trying to understand the rainforest ecosystem, or psychotherapists working with the human psyche than to “ordinary” managers working in companies.

Therefore, below I cite some important differences between the complex world of VUCA and the simple or possibly complicated world in which we have lived for many of the past years. In the complex world of VUCA:

  • It is impossible to have a linear, logical, cause-and-effect analysis of events – events are components of an indeterminate number of variables that are not static but constantly changing their value while simultaneously influencing the course of events,
  • There are no proven recipes for success – what becomes more important is a deep “feeling” of the current reality, what is happening and the direction in which events are going,
  • More important than intellectual analysis is deepened attentiveness and systematic experience of changing reality in order to notice patterns, trends, cyclicality, regularities, directions, emerging potentials and opportunities for new solutions,
  • It is impossible to define long-term strategies – it is only possible to systematically choose the next best step in a constantly changing reality.

How to operate in complexity

In my coaching sessions, I regularly work with managers who want to find their way in the reality of VUCA and operate effectively in this environment as well. Although very individual paths lead to this state, I notice several regularly recurring changes in managerial skills, behaviors, and attitudes that enable them to operate more effectively in complexity. These changes include:

  • Changing the definition of what success is for the team, the company and the manager themself,
  • A deeper attentiveness to reality and the ability to “perceive” it at different levels. For example, deep listening to employees at the levels of facts, emotions, values and emerging opportunities for the team,
  • The ability to separate facts from a manager’s perceptions, hopes and expectations,
  • The ability to distinguish complex or chaotic situations from complicated or simple ones. These four types of situations require very different leader attitudes and behaviors,
  • Getting rid of perfectionism and inflated expectations (fantasies) about exactly how reality should look,
  • Paying greater attention to understanding, building rapport, and trust within the team,
  • Noticing and harnessing the energy of events rather than fighting to defend the status quo,
  • Increasing the ability to accept reality as it is in order to act appropriately to the context and situation of the company, team, customers, business partners, suppliers, etc.
  • Deepened self-reflection leading to conscious response to events instead of automatic reaction to them,
  • Openness to creative action, flexibility and improvisation,
  • Ongoing recognition of new opportunities in complex, sometimes crisis situations.

 

CONCLUSION

The above-described five phenomena of the pandemic, remote working from home, and increasing political instability are increasingly forcing a whole new way for both managers and entire companies to act.

Depending on individual stress mechanisms, a given manager’s response to these phenomena can range from severe stress at work to increased focus, mobilization, and creativity in the face of an extraordinary challenge.

In citing and presenting the above observations, however, I cannot help but think that these new circumstances present a powerful opportunity for the development of a new, wise kind of leadership.

A leadership in which there are fewer fine words, pathos, certificates and narcissism, and a more profound sense of action, authenticity, equality, closeness to people, empathy, human approach to business, combining deeper reflection with wise, flexible action without rigid dogmas.

So maybe the current, difficult times are a great opportunity for the development of a new generation of leaders.

Maciej Szturmowicz

Scaleup Founder, Coach, Facilitator

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