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Pandemic planning: Four phases leaders must prepare for

How nimble are you?

The COVID-19 pandemic is now a reality in Canada. For how long, no one really knows. It’s a safe bet that most leaders have never been trained to manage a situation like this, where the world’s social norms and economy have changed in an instant.

Just a few weeks ago, many organizations were thriving. University second terms were coming to an end, and children were at school. We could invite friends over for dinner, watch live sports, and engage in recreational and social activities. Without much notice, all of this stopped.

It appears we now have three kinds of workers in Canada:

  • Non-essential: Those who can work from home.
  • Essential: Generally, those who work at a physical workplace because their jobs can’t be done remotely (e.g., health providers, fire, police, grocery and pharmacy staff, transportation workers)—though some may work from home.
  • In waiting: Those who are laid off, waiting for their jobs to come back online, and hoping government subsidies or employment insurance can get them through this period.

This pandemic will challenge leaders’ innovation, resolve, and resources. More than ever, organizations will need to support their human capital. And all employers are especially encouraged to look for ways to support employees’ mental fitness.

The day-to-day challenge for organizations will be how to successfully lead their employees—essential and non-essential alike—through this pandemic. This requires an understanding of four distinct phases.

Phase 1: Shock and learning

The change in Canadians’ work arrangements happened rapidly, seemingly overnight. Immediately, all employees had to deal with the stress of a sudden change to their routines. Some faced the pressure of being essential workers serving on the front line. Others had to learn how to work remotely. And some had to deal with becoming an “employee-in-waiting” as they were laid off. This change might have been coupled with additional stressors of caring for children while working, balancing the number of hours to work at home, and dealing with the fear of potentially catching COVID-19 at their workplace and bringing it home to their families.

This is the time when people start to ask questions about what this means, dealing with concerns about money and job security, adapting to innovation, learning new technologies, creating a new norm, making new financial plans, trying to stay active, and dealing with isolation and social distancing. This stage starts out with lots of adrenaline that’s not sustainable. It is the birth of a new reality and employees are learning how to be as comfortable and safe as possible. During this phase, employers need to consider how they will help their employees develop mental fitness to maintain their health and well-being.

Phase 2: Impact and grind

As the shock subsides, Canadians are adjusting to this new reality and realizing this is going to take some time. This second phase includes family or relationship stress, financial stress, anxiety, self-medicating (e.g., cannabis, snacking, and alcohol) for grief and symptom relief. Isolation and loneliness may grind people down and strain their mental health. As the social determinants of health become negatively impacted, more employees will struggle. This is why it’s important for employers to support their employees’ mental fitness development in Phase 1: This second phase requires intervention, not prevention.

Employers need to consider how to engage their workforce in practices that promote healthy coping and strengthen resilience. Employers may want to encourage mechanisms to maintain connection—such as virtual meetings with video capability—to decrease feelings of isolation. Another factor to consider is structure. Employees should be encouraged to establish or maintain a routine.

All employees will likely experience some degree of impact and grind associated with the COVID-19 disruption. The degree will differ by each employee’s resilience, social connections, financial health, and perceived level of support. The longer this pandemic goes on, the greater the risk some employees carry over challenges such as grief, loss, and regret into Phase 3. Those with high resilience and strong social connections and support may skip from Phase 1 to Phase 3. But it would not be a stretch to assume many will experience this phase.

Phase 3: Restart, prepare for the new normal

When social distancing measures relax and employees can begin to return to work, things won’t be the same. This wave presents an opportunity for employers to evaluate existing policies, procedures, and programs to determine if changes should be made to improve emergency preparedness protocols and practices. These may include sick time, short-term disability, paramedical insurance, and what to do when an employee has a small cough or a few sniffles.

While we might be moving fast, it is important to track the new ways of working that are being implemented throughout your organization. It is tempting to leave the tracking until after the crisis has passed, but at that point there will be a strong pull to go back to “normal.” If you have maintained a record of what’s working it will be easier for your people and your leaders to continue later.

COVID-19: Get all the insights

Review your harassment policy to ensure it protects people who are thought to have suffered COVID-19 to ensure no one is biased; revisit remote working policies to determine who gets to work from home or if business operations should be revisited; determine what personal protective equipment will be mandatory at work; and how work will be done differently with respect to physical spacing and meetings.

This is also an important time to foster post-COVID-19 recovery programs for employees. New programs may be needed to support a workforce struggling from experiencing COVID-19, along with initiatives to ensure the organization is ready for another wave of the virus, future pandemics, or the next crisis. Also, depending on the type of work your employees fall into (essential, non-essential, or in waiting), employers will need to be prepared to address questions and stressors related to the economic impact of COVID-19 on their employees’ lives. To support employees, employers may want to consider programs and supports around financial planning to help them prepare for their new normal.

Phase 4: Potential return of COVID-19

We would be naïve to not think a second round is possible until we have a vaccine and this disease can be controlled. Employees may experience a high degree of stress related to the possible return of COVID-19. Practices that promote increased sanitization, hygiene, and physical distancing in the workplace should be put into place. If employees need to spend more time in isolation during a subsequent wave, employers must be ready to address the economic and family stressors they may face.

As we continue moving through these phases of COVID-19, it is important for leaders to reflect on their experiences, connect with their peer networks, and look toward future phases to better protect their people and anticipate challenges to come. It won’t be easy, but know that all leaders are faced with similar challenges—and the leaders who anticipate and prepare for future phases are the ones who have a better chance to succeed.

Dr. Bill Howatt

Dr. Bill Howatt

Chief of Research, The Conference Board of Canada

Glenn Cullen

Glenn Cullen

Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer, Public Services Health and Safety Association

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