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Emotional Responses to Uncertainty: What to Look for in Your Team Right Now

Around the world, economies and countries are locking-down, re-opening, closing again – a confusing cacophony of change. All of us are facing the stark reality of operating in an environment of chronic uncertainty.

On our platform we’ve been seeing the results: almost a quarter of people operating close to burnout as the pandemic goes on, with higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of productivity.

Now is a key moment to take stock as a leader. How have the people in your team been coping since the pandemic hit in spring? Many people show signs of long-term emotional stress in unexpected ways, and as we move from the immediate crisis into this longer-term phase of the pandemic, people’s emotional states and ways of coping may be shifting again.

Our individual emotional responses to high-stress events vary. Consider grief, a useful process to think with when facing any loss - whether that be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a huge change like the closure of the office or loss of a way of life. We all know the myriad complex responses we can go through when mourning: Anger, denial, bargaining or sadness and depression. Our individual journey through grief will be unique, taking hugely different forms. We express our pain in our own ways.

We have been talking to leaders on our platform and have been logging some of the responses and behaviours coming up in their teams – and themselves. Here are the top four to look out for:

- Anger, irritation and frustration: This can come up over small issues that feel quite random, or take shape as sudden anger that seems to come up out of nowhere. Anger is a common phenomenon when we’re holding in a lot of stress; our deeper feelings will ‘bubble over’ unexpectedly at some point, and we tend to lash out at whoever happens to be nearby. When you perceive this in someone in your team, listen to this sign and act: It’s probably time for your colleague to talk to someone about what’s going on under the surface.

- Paralysis, helplessness or powerlessness: This is a common reaction to feeling overwhelmed, and is an understandable response to an on-going global pandemic. In a very real way, we no longer have control over some fundamental parts of our lives. It may show itself through a change in behaviour – perhaps work being done late, incomplete or to a lower standard, or a lack of engagement in social or work activities. It’s difficult to manage as a leader, but creating space for people to voice their feelings is important, as is helping people see what things they can control in the situation.

- Denial: Many will respond to the acute crisis we are all facing with an ‘I’m fine’. Perhaps they are resilient and coping, but use your gut to look out for covert behavioural signals that someone is not being honest (with themselves, and/or with you).

- Overwork: Burnout has been an increasing phenomenon in the pandemic, coupled with the difficulty of adjusting to working from home, new schedules and boundaries. Many of us cope with anxiety and uncertainty by throwing ourselves into a project. For those wrestling with job insecurity, ramping up the pressure on themselves might feel sensible as a bid to avoid redundancy. Unfortunately, the mental health consequences can be severe. Watch out for the telltale signs of burnout: Long hours but decreasing returns; exhaustion; withdrawal.

How to lead well when operating in chronic uncertainty:

- Talk regularly to your team, and listen openly.

- Alongside this, listen to your gut. You know your people better than anyone. As well as listening to what they’re saying, notice their behaviour. If someone is behaving in a way that seems out-of-character – maybe they’re late, easily frustrated, or missing days or deadlines – make time to check-in with them. You never know what’s going on in someone’s life, and it may be the first time that they’ve checked-in with themselves as they try to cope with everything.

- Operate from a starting-point of openness and transparency. This will help to create a culture of trust and will allow people to ‘feel ok to not be ok’ – a key factor in moving away from a culture of avoidance and denial.

- Practice what you preach: Check-in regularly with your own emotional state. What impacts on others will be hitting you too. Take time out regularly to get perspective, exercise and aim to get enough sleep, and seek out your own support through coaching, mentoring or personal development.

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