Rebooting Brains Post Covid19 – The Urgent Leadership Challenge

6 months ago Kath Harmeston

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“The least compassionate thing you can do when someone is not equipped to be doing the role they are doing is to leave them in that role. They lose confidence and self esteem. They take that back to their teams. And worst of all, is that the individual no longer believes in themselves, who's losing their sense of self, they are taking that energy home. They are taking that energy home to their families.”

Jeff Weiner, CEO LinkedIn

Mental Health Awareness this week brings a stark message to leaders about the hidden mental health challenges their employees are facing as a result of the pandemic crisis, and the uncertainty of transitioning back to work.

Due to the unnatural amount of continued stress and anxiety which staff have been under in their personal and professional lives, over the last couple of months, leaders will be finding themselves tasked with assisting their teams’ recovery in ways they are unsure about, or have not been trained to handle before.

And these stressors will continue, not just because of the uncertainty we all face, but also because of the silent biological processes that could have happened to employees’ bodies during the crisis, and will continue to do so if not managed.

Our bodies are sophisticated and finely tuned machines with automatic acceleration and braking systems in the brain for stress management. The automatic subconscious “fight or flight” response, which stems from millions of years of evolution, is triggered when our brain perceives an external threat (whether that be real or imagined) and reacts to it. Within seconds the brain instructs the autonomic nervous system to flood our bodies with a myriad of chemicals (eg. adrenaline and cortisol) to prepare us for the threat. A rapid increase in heart rate and breathing takes place, digestion slows down and sleep systems are turned off, to allow for an immediate release of energy, either to run away or fight. When the threat is over the autonomic nervous system activates once again and reverses the stress effects by releasing calming chemicals.

This necessary survival process is useful for short bursts of stress and threat in the modern day world, but prolonged exposure without time for recovery is harmful, resulting in chronic illnesses such as anxiety, gastric and heart problems, depression, weight gain, lower immunity to viruses and problems with concentration. It’s the equivalent to putting our foot on the brake and accelerator at the same time, which will ultimately wear the brakes out and put stress on the drivetrain. 

New neurological pathways (i.e. memories) will begin to form in our brains when continually exposed to stressful events too (eg. divorce, bullying, fear of redundancy etc.). When we recall a difficult event, or keep thinking about a current stressful situation, our brain produces the same stress response as if it was experiencing it for the first time. So we may experience many hits of the adrenaline cocktail each day, and thus set up a vicious biological cycle of knock on effects unknowingly (eg. insomnia caused by stress can cause anxiety, which in turn causes more insomnia).

There are many symptoms to look out for right now, and they many be subtle at first. For some it’s just the feeling of being slightly out of kilter and they can’t quite put their finger on it, but for others it may manifest as lying awake most of the night, loss of appetite, a feeling of dread in the pit of their stomach, irrational behaviours and lack of concentration. Some will be experiencing anger and frustration, feeling overwhelmed and emotional. Others will be overeating, drinking to take the “edge off” and self-medicating to alleviate the symptoms, rather than discuss issues. Add to the mix that according to the European Journal of Social Psychology, we establish new behaviours on average over 66 days, so returning to work, or the original workplace, may be as much of an issue for employees as it was adapting to working from home in the first place.

Resilient leaders will educate themselves on how to manage their unique workplace challenges, and help staff reboot their stressed brains back into orientation, in order to regain momentum, close the gap on financial losses and accelerate market regrowth. Commitment to mental health support and education programmes for employees and for themselves will be vital. Mental Health First Aid training creates workplace champions, and is a secure way to embed the necessary changes.

Executive teams are now called to action to help staff regain their self-esteem and equip them to perform well in their roles once more.