Salisbury Business Improvement District

Communicating with Anxious Employees During Lockdown

Salisbury BID has teamed up with local anxiety specialist, Caroline Cavanagh, to provide business leaders of Salisbury with the guidance and tools they need to support their employees through the mental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more about the support programme here.

Communicating with Anxious Employees During Lockdown - By Caroline Cavanagh

Anxiety is a response to vulnerability. It is an emotion that most people will be feeling currently, in different degrees and in response to different triggers. Anxiety in many ways, is very similar to a virus. It causes the body to go into survival mode and fight the invading threat, releasing chemicals and changing how the body works.

Similar to Covid19, some people will have very mild symptoms, others more severe ones. Your staff are likely to have variety of responses to their fears and this will require a different treatment from you in your interaction with them.

Here are some tools that you can have accessible to use when interacting with your staff during lockdown.

  1. Dealing with the Fight or Flight response to fear

You may have heard of the fight or flight response. As a very broad generalisation, men are more likely to fight, women to ‘flight’ – withdraw into themselves.

Fight: The attack may take different forms such as uncharacteristic aggression, or blaming you (unreasonably) for the situation they find themselves in. Whilst the attack may be inappropriate, take a breath before responding and recognise this person is behaving out of fear.

It is a very human response to lash out in anger at those we feel secure with. Most parents will have taken ‘both barrels’ from teenagers over something that happened at school. Spouses will often take the brunt of a frustration that happened at work. Bottom line – we ‘unleash’ the frustration on those whom we trust will be able to take it.

This does not mean it is OK, or that you have to accept their behaviour. However, by taking that breath and acknowledging that they may just be ‘venting,’ it can help you to avoid taking the behaviour personally which can then put you into fight or flight mode too. By stepping back and seeing where they are coming from, it leaves a wider range of responses open to you.

Flight: On the other end of the scale, if you have members of staff who are not as communicative as they would normally be, avoid assuming all is well with them. You may need to make the first move and coax them out of the shell they have withdrawn into. Don’t take a simple, “I’m fine” at face value. Look at the wider behaviour and see if there is the evidence to suggest they are fine – or not!

Imagine a frightened kitten who is feeling trapped. The kitten either comes out spitting with claws out or it tries to hide in a corner. Even in the attack, you would put on gloves and treat the kitten kindly because your desire is to help it. If it was hiding, you would try for more than 2 seconds to coax it out.

Keep this image in mind if you sense that a member of staff is showing either of these responses as it is likely to be their fear that is driving it, and your desire is to help.

  1. Words are only a small part of communication

Communication combines 3 different mediums: The spoken word, tonality and non-verbal communication. If someone say’s “That’s great,” but their tone of voice is sarcastic, we interpret the message differently from someone bouncing up and down, grinning and shouting, “That’s great.” The words are the same, but the meaning taken is fundamentally different.

With remote working we are reducing exposure to the full realm of communication mediums. Over the phone, we lose the biggest part of communication – non verbal, which represents 55% of communication. Communicating by written word only (emails/messenger/WhatsApp) means you are left with just written language – 7% of communication. (And this is why Emojis have been invented to try and replace tone of voice or indicate emotion you would pick up non-verbally.)

Where possible, aim to communicate with staff as much as is possible over a medium where you can access the full 100% spectrum of communication – ie see their body language and hear the nuances of tone of voice. With a larger staff, this may not be possible, however, use your chain of management to ensure someone is checking in with each staff member to ensure they are not hiding 93% of how they are doing behind their 7% words!

And it works the other way around too! Where possible, have as much of YOUR communication to them over a medium that allows them to see as well as hear you.

  1. Respect personal boundaries

There have been some great initiatives around creating team building activities and morale boosting ventures. However, it is also important to recognise that not everyone may want to join in the Friday night quiz night or the office online coffee morning. Whilst such ideas are great and will be embraced by many, for others this is their idea of hell!

The way forward is in how you position the activity. You may have never done team building or had quiz nights in your organisation but we also find ourselves in a situation we have never faced before so ‘new’ is OK. Where this is an optional extra though, be clear that people are aware of that. Let your staff know what your motivation is behind running the activity; be it to have fun, to have that informal chat you’d normally have when making a cuppa, or just to provide a forum to escape reality for an hour and have a laugh. And then leave the invite open.

People who are normally up for partying may find themselves less keen currently. Similarly people who may want to get home and not join in out of hours activities, may now relish doing something that consumes time in the evening. Respect that people’s needs and priorities may have changed.

Reflecting on point 2 above, if you are sending an email out, people have only 7% of the spectrum of communication available to them so pick your words carefully! If your staff feel they are expected to join in, or that by not joining in, it will be noticed, then your positive intention will not give the results you wanted. Make it clear that a “Thanks but no thanks” is an acceptable response.