Four tips for leading safely right now

16 June 2020

Teams with great leaders are much more likely to thrive. Our research shows that these leaders role model their company’s values, are accessible and listen, provide useful feedback, and encourage good mental health practices. But what does ‘great leadership’ look like in business unusual times, such as re-emerging from a pandemic, economic challenges, and collective global trauma? While we don’t have all the answers, we do know that these leaders are using a range of strategies to support their people—and themselves—as we move towards the new normal.

1. Understand that there’s more to safety than sanitiser

Whether your workplace has continued operating throughout COVID-19, wound down, or moved forward in a different way, chances are you are now starting to think about ramping back up and how to do that safely.

Safe Work Australia has released detailed guidelines for helping workplaces navigate COVID-19 to keep workers and customers safe. The guidelines include comprehensive information on everything from working out how much space you need for each worker (4m2, in case you’re wondering!) through to cleaning and hygiene, guidelines for safely using elevators and other shared facilities, and lists of personal protective equipment you may need to provide.

The site also has a comprehensive section on mental health and COVID-19, recognising that most people have been psychologically impacted by the pandemic, and may also encounter COVID-19-related psychological risks through their work.

2. Manage psychological risks

The first half of 2020 has thrown humanity a stream of curve balls, with even the calmest amongst us finding themselves rattled. To manage COVID-19-related psychological risks at work, we must first identify them. According to Safe Work Australia, these risks include:

  • Concerns about being exposed to the virus
  • Exposure to violence, aggression, or discrimination due to race or ill-health
  • Increased work demands, such as cleaning requirements and deliveries, fewer resources, or additional responsibilities like organising new equipment and processes
  • Reduced support and isolation due to working remotely and fewer interactions with co-workers
  • Strained workplace relationships due to isolation, fewer opportunities for connection and incidental communication, and increased stressors
  • Poor change management in the face of continuous COVID-19-related changes, such as restructures, changed ways of working, and cash flow concerns
  • Increased emotional distress.

All Australian workplaces have legal obligations to eliminate or minimise these risks, and approaching this is quite straightforward:

Safe Work Australia’s resource section offers a range of helpful tools including a free COVID-19 risk register to guide you through the process.

3. Know what trauma and distress looks like

COVID-19 has been described as a ‘collective trauma’, meaning that we are all being impacted by a distressing and disturbing shared experience.

Some of the lasting impacts of this could include increased feelings of fear, vulnerability and vigilance for new threats, and being unsure of ourselves and our place in the world.

Shorter term impacts of this distress might look like:

  • Displaying a lack of interest in things they would normally enjoy or be involved in
  • Abrupt changes in tone, volume or mood
  • Long pauses between speaking
  • Withdrawal
  • Poor concentration
  • Rigid and inflexible attitude
  • Overreaction to minor things
  • High or exaggerated emotions – teary, angry, anxious, fearful, sad.

Be mindful that everyone has been impacted by this pandemic and is processing it in their own way. Keep an eye on your colleagues in your regular catch ups and check in with them discreetly if you are concerned.

4. Look after themselves

Leading through these challenging times probably means you are trying to get your ‘day job’ done while also shepherding your people and organisation—and managing your own personal response to COVID-19. This is unknown territory for most of us.

Looking after your own needs is critical right now. Start by doing a self-check-in, and try to have realistic expectations of yourself, letting go of what you can and focussing on what’s important. If you are having a rough day, know that you’re not alone, and please seek help if you need it.