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Performance Through Care – Why Psychological Safety and Resilience Are Key to Navigating the Crisis

The level of adaptability, collaboration and performance currently running through organizations is often surprising. At the same time, more and more executives and employees are struggling with feelings of isolation, loneliness and stress.

What should top executives take into consideration when leading their organizations during the pandemic? Egon Zehnder takes a look at five levers to lead, grow and thrive through these challenging times.

The ‘bright side’ of the lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of white-collar workers around the globe into a massive, unplanned social experiment, exchanging office cubicles for kitchen and dining tables. Despite initial skepticism and reluctance, many now consider working from home (WFH) to be a positive experience, and over 68% indicate a desire to continue this novel form of working going forward1. Not only employees acquired a taste for remote working - an overwhelming majority of employers, or 89%, now considers WFH an alternative with no negative business implications2. Research seems to support this notion, showing that productivity and well-being levels often soar while stress levels decrease3. Consequently, CFOs already envision an office-free future, CHROs dream of unrestricted global hiring, and CEOs see their company’s performance skyrocketing.

The pandemic’s hidden costs

A move towards WFH may at first glance appear beneficial, but can be accompanied by hidden costs. And while the current crisis ranks as possibly the worst economic crisis ever, it’s also an existential crisis, changing the way we live our lives.

By definition, working remotely reduces physical contact and often leads to social and professional isolation, separation, and in the long run, loneliness. It’s important not to underestimate the toll of remote working on the workforce, especially in combination with the current health pandemic, as frequently witnessed by Egon Zehnder during recent Zoom calls with executives. While the full implications are only likely to manifest themselves in the aftermath of the pandemic, first indicators already draw a grim picture. Estimates indicate that up to 40% of the workforce will suffer from some form of mental health issue.

Roughly, four out of ten people in the UK reported high anxiety levels in late March as a direct consequence of the lockdown. In Belgium, nearly a third of young people aged 14-24 were diagnosed with depression – three times more than usual. And, in the US, adults were eight times as likely to screen positive for serious mental illnesses during the pandemic. Furthermore, depending on the speed of economic recovery, countries could face thousands of additional deaths over the next years due to despair caused by the pandemic4.

While not all of these cases have their origins in the ongoing pandemic, the numbers clearly indicate how the current situation places an additional psychological strain on the workforce – making many face serious mental issues, with negative implications for organizations.

Performance through care

Leading companies identified the urgent need to address mental health issues long before the outbreak of the current crisis, acknowledging their far-reaching implications. For them, employee psychological safety and mental health are more than just nice-sounding phrases. Both are crucial to upholding organizational performance and ensuring sustained business success. In addition, they are also necessary from a human perspective, together representing the backbone of every healthy and flourishing human being.

In essence, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, opinions, questions, concerns, or mistakes”, according to Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business school. It allows people to be themselves at work and raise any controversial issues, when necessary.

Mental health, meanwhile, encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and affects the way we think, feel, and act. Solid mental health enables employees to realize their full potential.

Leadership in the COVID-19 Crisis

How leaders and organizations are reacting to a new world.

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Growing resilience and supporting mental health

Forerunner companies are addressing mental health issues with diverse solutions, such as offering reasonable office hours, stress and recovery workshops, and psychological support helplines, to name a few.

Yet, companies (and individuals) often overlook a fundamental, but powerful resource that fosters both mental health and psychological safety: resilience. Helping individuals to become more resilient means fostering their ability to endure and bounce back from adversity or hardship5. Egon Zehnder conceptualizes resilience even more broadly as a form of antifragility, following the notion of thinkers such as Nicholas Nassim Taleb. This implies regarding it as the ability to not only recover from shocks, but also to grow and accordingly flourish.

Some things are beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gains from disorder and gets better.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile)

The more resilient an individual, team, or organization the better their ability to get through and evolve during circumstances such as the ongoing pandemic and the WFH situation. We therefore suggest that employers and leaders support individuals by activating the following five levers behind resilience:

  1. Self-care: the ability to recognize and take care of one’s physical and emotional well-being, experiencing a range of emotions and acting on their inherent messages
  2. Support: the feeling of mutual care, compassion and connectedness via a stable network of close people, and via small, but meaningful interactions that include empathy
  3. Meaning: the conviction that one’s work is meaningful and worthwhile, respectively the ability to achieve meaning by acting on what is most important in any given situation
  4. Strengths: the awareness of one’s personal strengths and capacity to deploy them effectively to thrive and remain energized
  5. Perspective: the ability to look forward with ‘realistic’ optimism, not by ‘smiling when feeling like crying’ but by focusing on positive aspects and things within one’s control

Various measures can help to foster individual resilience on a collective scale. At Egon Zehnder, we encourage and support leaders by addressing individual states of minds in team workshops and 1:1 settings. Actively inviting people to open up about their emotions has become a leadership imperative in the new normal. Jointly discovering levers to foster resilience furthermore closely connects people and creates a sense of trust, care and support, fostering the key dimensions we are aiming for: psychological safety and mental well-being.

When wholeheartedly applying “performance through care”, great things are bound to happen. Most importantly, people will bring their full authentic self and inner strengths to the workplace – be it at an office or kitchen table
.


With the kind support of Max Reichel.

 

Footnotes
  1. Prudential, Pulse of the American Worker Survey (Special Report) (2020)
  2. Fraunhofer IAO und DGFP, via Süddeutsche Zeitung (2020)
  3. APA, The future of remote work (2019); Kurland & Cooper, Manager control and employee isolation in telecommuting environments (2002); HBR, Is working remotely sapping your creativity? (2015); HBR, A guide to managing your (newly) remote workers (2020); Bloom et al., Does working from home work? (2014); Flex jobs, Remote work statistics (2020)
  4. Ozamiz-Etxebarria et al., Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Levels in the initial stage of COVID-19 (2020); United Nations, Concerns are raise over the threat of COVID-19 to mental health in Europe (2020); Twenge & Joiner, Mental distress among U.S. adults during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020); Medical Press, Unemployment, isolation, and depression from COVID-19 (2020); Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University (https://www.sciline.org/covid/expert-quotes-social-isolation-mental-health)
  5. Martin Seligman (Flourish), Karen Reivich & Andrew Shatté (2003): The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles; Meichenbaum D, Calhoun LG, Tedeschi RG (2006). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 355–368.

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