Professor emeritus, Dr. philos
Spesialist i klinisk psykologi
Klinikk for krisepsykologi, Bergen, Norge
Heidi Wittrup Djup
Daglig leder, Psykologspesialist, Barnefaglig sakkyndig, Veileder, Foredragsholder
Telefon: 55 59 61 80
In order to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus and prevent unmanageable pressure on the national health services, several governments have authorized lockdowns or undertaken other extreme measures. These comprehensive interventions require that some essential and critical functions in society are still operative. Thus, there is a relatively small group of people who makes it possible to implement the measures that enable us to protect those most at risk.
Employees in food stores and other service personnel make an invaluable effort. Without them, society would come to a stop, posing significant challenges for anyone currently working from home or those who are quarantined or isolated.
Employees in service professions have to perform a job while putting themselves and potentially others at risk of infection. They face a huge daily work pressure. Aside from their duties, they must remain professional and courteous while responding to customer’s needs, expectations and demands. At the same time, life outside their workplace and their private life continues. While working, they have to live with the uncertainty of how things are at home or how their loved ones are coping. The totality of the situation can affect them both physically and mentally.
The management and employers are also in a challenging situation. They too can feel considerable pressure, both in terms of government orders, limited access to resources, finances, and their employees’ work situation. The situation they are facing can be expected to last for a long period of time. Managers must therefore ensure that employees do not wear out, and at the same time motivate them to continue their work efforts over time. It is important that managers have adequate knowledge of how they can care for their employees, both at a compassionate human level and at an organizational level. Also, it is equally important that the employee itself is capable of individual self-care in these demanding times, thus preventing unnecessary burnout.
In this article, we will provide some advice to executives and others in service professions, especially those in the food/grocery industry. Hopefully, this can ensure that employees cope better and make them more able to endure over time. We will outline what the organization can do, what the team can do, and what the individual can do to ensure proper care and support.
What can the organization do?
It is the organization’s responsibility to have routines and structures in place in order to take good care of employees.
- From organizational psychology, we know that good leadership and work atmosphere are always very important for job satisfaction. When facing a crisis, the demand on managers at all levels is extremely high. Especially in a crisis situation, it is important that the most senior manager is available and visible either physically or via digital platforms. Leaders must show leadership through care, understanding and support. In particular, they must reach out to employees they know are dealing with difficult circumstances in their life, such as having someone in the family being at risk or falling ill, having a limited social network, or having recently experienced bereavement or other life stress. If an employee is struggling mentally, has a refugee background, or is somehow struggling with anxiety and worries, the psychological difficulties are likely to increase in intensity under the current circumstances. The management should approach the employee with kindness, interest and compassion in these challenging times. If an employee has to leave work or stay at home to care for family members, he or she may feel guilty or inadequate. It is important that the manager is sensitive to this and deals with these issues in a supportive and attentive manner.
- High work pressure increases the chances of conflicts at the workplace. Conflicts must not be avoided or ignored, although it is not necessarily possible to address them fully in the current situation. The leader must ensure that all parts in a conflict are heard and taken seriously, and at the same time explain what can be done now and what has to wait until a later, more appropriate time. The workers need to understand that being able to serve customers appropriately needs to be prioritized in order to stay operational and in business, and that conflicts must be dealt with when the situation allows for it.
- We have worked in war and disaster situations and know how important it is to have good rest and relaxation routines away from work. This allows personnel to endure over time. It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that personnel do not wear out and collapse. Some are very willing and able to perform but do so to an extent which makes them vulnerable and at risk of completely running out of energy (burnout). At a time when many people are laid off work and are facing challenging and uncertain times, employees in these critical societal functions may want to perform extra, not allowing themselves to set boundaries and care for their own needs. Some may feel they have to perform to help others they know are having a tough time. Although many may feel they are capable of mobilizing more energy and dealing more efficiently in a crisis situation, no one is immune against the toll of long-lasting stress and exhaustion. Therefore, good leadership is to check how the staff is doing, and ensure that they take care of themselves through breaks and days off from work. Leaders must put this into words – but they must also model this behaviour by setting boundaries and caring for themselves. No one benefits from managers or employees who wear themselves out due to inadequate self-care.
- In the current situation, new employees may need to supplement the more experienced or those at risk of being worn out. The organization must therefore ensure that new employees receive enough training in order to make them feel confident in their work tasks, and about what is expected of them. This is challenging in these hectic and stressful periods but is nonetheless important to prioritize in order to avoid work frustration and prevent staff burnout.
- The management has to provide information by creating predictable routines. Perhaps each workday should begin with an updated orientation. Emphasize the facts, and avoid speculation. Even if there is nothing new to announce, adhere to the agreed upon times of the meeting and give or repeat the information you have. Good and predictable information flow is particularly important in an uncertain and threatening situation. An email or bulletin summarizing any changes and what is being done to follow up on employee safety and well-being, is an important signal that leaders and organizations care about both employees and the future of the organization. It should be ensured that the employees themselves can easily give feedback about the challenges they experience in their jobs. This way, questions and worries can be quickly addressed, such as changes to hygiene procedures, how merchandise is presented, and how the employees should deal with customers acting against recommendations from the health authorities. It is important that the organization clearly communicates to employees that they are not expected to face or deal with these challenges on their own.
- In some situations, both individuals and groups may need psychological follow-up. The organization must ensure that routines and resources are in place for this. Not many people need to make use of such offers, but it still provides a sense of safety and care to know that it is an opportunity they have. Also, it helps to normalize people’s reactions to this stressful situation. Additionally, it signals that the organization cares for the employees. Such an offer is especially important for those who have a stressful life situation outside of work as well. However, it is the management – and not a psychologist – who has the responsibility of caring for the needs and requirements of the staff.
- The management also have to motivate the staff and keep up their dedication and morale. The situation we are in has consequences for many companies and employees. The future is uncertain for many. Providing comfort through false hope is not a good motivational strategy. Realism has to be combined with proximity and accessibility. This can soothe the staff at a demanding time. What is special about the situation we are in is precisely the uncertainty about the time perspective and the consequences. Whilst leaders motivate the staff to keep them committed, it is also important that leaders, if possible, reach out to those who are ill, quarantined, or laid off (even temporarily). They may need to feel that they too, have a place where they belong and are appreciated.
- At the workplace, the manager can establish a group of leaders, so that the leader can ensure necessary rest and time off. The manager may also need time to prepare strategies to reduce the stress and workload of employees, and to think strategically about the future of the organization.
What can the team do?
Most people work in relation to others. Many work in teams, thus experiencing a mutual dependence on one another and a joint effort to achieve goals, results and well-being. Here, we refer to those who work together in a group during a shift, as a work team. In order for the team to function well, there has to be good leadership and collaboration between co-workers, as described above. The team leader has to check in on the team at regular intervals and ensure that those who struggle in this situation are identified, cared for, and given an opportunity to take some time off if needed.
- If possible, a short team meeting before the workday starts, and especially before the team goes their separate ways, will be important. That way worries and frustrations can be vented, uncertainty can be addressed, and the team will have an opportunity to come up with ideas for how to improve work conditions. Together, a group can motivate each other and provide mutual support, and they may also develop a sense of common humour or a specific “language» that provides mental protection, coping and a sense of togetherness. In such a ‘team meeting’ one can also discuss how the team works together, good relationships can be maintained, and friction and discontent can be identified and dealt with at an early stage.
- Caring for new employees or short-term substitutes is also very important. When the team takes good care of them, the workload will not only become less heavy for the individual worker, but the team will also experience that new colleagues are able to add new, valuable perspectives. When new members of the team are taken good care of and experience and knowledge can be transferred from the experienced to the less experienced employees, good relationships and good performance can be ensured. It may be a good idea to pair an experienced and an inexperienced employee together in the beginning in order to provide confidence for the new member and give a sense of being part of the team.
- If the team must perform some specific tasks that are more tiring than others, rotation within the team is important. Then the load will be distributed among several people. The leader must monitor if the same person always says “yes” or somehow sacrifices their own needs and boundaries for the sake of others or to counteract someone else’s exhaustion.
- If possible, the leader should think of ways of expressing gratitude and appreciation towards the team. Such acts symbolize care. For example, a box of chocolates, a handwritten card or a greeting to everyone in the staff room, might be of value.
- In challenging times, a conversation with a close colleague can be helpful. This way, those waiting at home won’t be burdened by frustrations from work. Frustrations and disappointments that have arisen in the workplace should also be addressed there. Team leaders who acknowledge the efforts put in by the staff, provide feedback on achievements, and who provide good support in everyday life, are very important and appreciated. Team leaders who keep the group well-informed about new initiatives and other information from the organization, provide coherence and a sense of common ground. In addition, team leaders can be good role models by putting into words some common emotions and reactions, or even by saying how they feel themselves. This way it gets easier for others to open up about how they feel as well. It is also important to keep in mind those who may be quarantined or are on sick leave, who may feel bad, inadequate or left out. Maybe the leader of the team or someone appointed by him or her, can reach out or send a greeting on behalf of the whole team.
- Every challenge becomes easier to deal with if we stand together and support each other. Humour releases tension, binds the group together, and mobilizes energy. Of course, it should not happen at the expense of customers, nor should it be expressed in a way that belittles disease risk or ridicules other people’s reactions to the situation. Nonetheless, a good mood is contagious in the best possible sense and helps us distance ourselves from the challenges, demands and concerns we are now facing.
What can you do for yourself?
Everyone has an independent responsibility to take care of oneself. In a job context, this responsibility is associated with self-care, setting appropriate boundaries and communicating clearly with others. In this way it is possible to cope with a demanding work situation over time.
Most people will have experienced what can be helpful when dealing with stressful situations. The strategies will vary from one person to the other and it is important to know which strategies to rely on.
- Take advantage of what has been helpful to you earlier, unless you have been relying on destructive strategies like unnecessary isolation or excessive use of alcohol. However, the current situation we are in, limits many of the common stress-management methods that people tend to use, considering that a number of leisure and social arenas have closed down. Therefore, it is extra important to respect the need for time off, recreation and recovery. Whether you listen to music, read a book, have a nice family meal, exercise, play with the kids at home, or something else, doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you do something that provides you with a sense of calmness, pleasure and relaxation.
- Many people emphasize music and physical activity as good stress-management methods, and rightly so. If one feels stressed or tired, relaxation techniques, lowering your own expectations of yourself, and reminding yourself of how important your effort is to others, will be very important. Especially for those who have such important roles and functions in today’s crisis situation, they need to remind themselves that they are doing something of great importance and value to society as a whole. Without your effort, the country would come to a complete stop. There are many people who are grateful for all you do.
- Use others around you to talk to if you feel exhausted, worn out or worried. A good conversation with someone you trust, whether it is someone at work, a partner or a good friend, can be very comforting and valuable. We also know that writing about how you experience the situation can take your thoughts ‘out of your head and onto paper’, which can also be of great help.
- If you worry a lot about the situation you are in, this is completely understandable. Still, it is important to distinguish between constructive concerns and fears that contribute to action and important precautions, and the kind of worry that goes into destructive rumination that just makes you anxious and exhausted. Overthinking and excessive concerns neither protects you nor changes the situation you are in. Therefore, it is important to limit and control the amount of time you spend worrying. By limiting the amount of time you spend thinking about this situation to a fixed ‘worry time’, you can help yourself take control and manage your concerns. Plan for a 15-20-minute interval in which you can “worry all you like”. If the troublesome thoughts appear in your mind before or after this fixed time, you say to yourself without getting annoyed; «Now, a concern came into my mind. I postpone thinking about this until my ‘worry time’. If you do this on every occasion, this will become more and more automatic. You need to practice this, so it’s important that you don’t give up even though you don’t succeed right away. The reason this is important, is that every time you worry, your body becomes a little more stressed and takes time to return to a calmer state. Other ways to reduce worry may be various ways of distracting yourself, such as spending time with others, watching a good movie, doing “mental exercises”, cooking or other positive activities.
- We also recommend that you use breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, or other positive imagery techniques if you feel stressed. There are many examples on the Internet and it doesn’t have to be advanced. A simple breathing exercise is to inhale while you count to four inside your head, hold your breath for an equal amount of time and then exhale slowly as you count to six. Repeat this 4-5 times and you will find that your body becomes more relaxed.
- Remember that it is normal to get tired when you are exerting yourself in the current situation. Take care of yourself, think about how you can economize your energy, and motivate yourself by saying «This will pass, even though it might take a long time. My efforts are important and valuable». Know that there are many of us who recognize and acknowledge how important your efforts are. Emotionally and psychologically, we are there together with you.
- The management has the overall responsibility of ensuring enough care for the employees, follow-up of those experiencing quarantine / sick leave, and to make sure that necessary measures are undertaken at the workplace. Predictable provision of information is important.
- Through adequate training, routines and collaboration, colleagues are able to help each other with tasks and at the same time support each other through this challenging time.
- The team leaders should arrange meetings with the team to provide updates, learn about the challenges and frustrations the team is experiencing, and allow relief and informal conversations about how the staff are feeling and coping.
- Leaders should help employees set boundaries for themselves, care for themselves and create a sense of togetherness, both by communicating about these issues, and by modelling behaviour.
- Employees are responsible for taking care of themselves using their own coping strategies, communicating clearly with management and colleagues, and by setting necessary boundaries for themselves.
- Concerns, uncertainties and personal challenges can be discussed with a trusted co-worker or friend, in order to avoid exhaustion.
- By focusing on the task and being reminded of the value of one’s work for the community and society as a whole, by being part of a caring team, and by being supported by a compassionate and competent leader, the individual will be more resilient and able to cope.