Returning to Work – Risk Appetite | Dr Pippa Grange

We have been thinking about the importance for the economy (and society) of getting people back in circulation and out of their homes, while also balancing the challenges of doing this safely and managing people’s fears. For business leaders this is the next big behavioural, cultural and communications challenge. We believe those who are able to create a workplace environment that successfully strikes this balance will create long-term competitive advantage. With this in mind, we have worked with psychologist Dr Pippa Grange to outline three important points to consider.

Talk it out – tackle the ’emotional hangover’

Although many people found ‘upsides’ to the lockdown, this was no holiday. It was and continues to be an enormous material and psychological disruption. We must assume that we don’t know anyone’s full story, what it meant to be estranged from or couped up with family, what was lost, or what is feared. Even when Covid-19 has not affected us directly and we haven’t ‘suffered’, the burdens of vigilance, uncertainty and forced change remain sources of psychological distress. People who manage stress well tend to dismiss or under-estimate the compound toll of stress in others.

Great leaders will directly discuss the experience of lockdown, what people gained from it and what people are worried about. In performance psychology, this is called ‘emotional hangover’ work and it is standard after major sporting events, regardless of whether they were successes or failures. It may seem counterintuitive to talk about difficult experiences, but the short and focused time spent processing the situation pays dividends in maintaining a resilient mentality. If it is not discussed, it can lead to too much reflection, wallowing or sympathy, which can create stuck-ness. Conversely, seeing coping as just ‘getting on with it’ and burying emotion in favour of rational action can create resentment. Take the time to talk about it and about how you will move on. Organisational leaders would do well to approach this period as they would post-merger or a large-scale restructure, with tight attention on engaging people, listening and communicating, rather than a post-break mentality of ‘ramp-up’ and catch-up. It is better to discuss, rejuvenate and clear the path for performance again.

Open negotiation

Consider making some early decisions on what is up for negotiation with your workforce in terms of back-to-work adaptations. For example, are you prepared for continued agile working or to adjust the hours of work? What are people willing to forgo for now, such as on-site food provision, showers or a gym, or what measures will bring them closer? What additions will support changes, such as brown paper bag lunches, encouragement to get outside for fresh air and extra leeway for staff who may now have additional care responsibilities. You can make all of these choices without dialogue, but it is a missed opportunity for engagement. People are less likely to raise their concerns directly and put themselves in a vulnerable position independently. You can help to dial-down the fear, raise ownership and diminish excuse-making significantly if these considerations are openly pre-negotiated.

Most people want authenticity, safety and a realistic sense of momentum away from the disruption. A powerful people theme right now would be an ‘us’ theme: ‘how are we going to adapt for the future?’ Engage people’s hearts and minds in the business possibilities that this disturbance has created to build back better. Review any emergent realisations such as productivity changes observed through remote work, shifting strategic priorities, wasted operational energy, or where leadership showed up in a crisis. Overall, it is about allowing people to feel involved and engaged in the challenge of moving forward.

Keep an eye on your ‘critic’

When any of us are stressed, we tend to get defensive and judgmental. Not only is there a rupture that threatens our stability, we are conditioned through life to never lose control, so we invest heavily in having things go our way. When they don’t, people tend to regain a sense of control by taking a position and sticking with it, no matter what. We may find ourselves using circular logic to make things fit our view. We therefore maintain our position as the only ‘right’ one and we tend to judge and shame others as wrong, selfish or not getting ‘it’. Right now, organisational leaders are making difficult decisions on strategy, redundancies, pay, furlough and budgets. It may be useful to recognise any judgmental attitudes creeping up and attempting to keep them at bay. One size is not going to fit all in this recovery and sometimes when we judge others, it is often our ‘critic’ doing much of the talking. Goodwill, self-care and tolerance will be especially strong allies in the near term. This part might be as hard psychologically as lockdown, albeit different. Stay close and listen attentively, there is protection in connection and it’s going to be a long journey still.

Pippa is a psychologist and culture coach and until recently the Head of People and Team Development at The Football Association. She is also the author of, “Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself.”