Leadership & Professional Development

Tamping down fear: How leaders can help their employees manage unprecedented anxiety levels

September 28, 2020 5:00 pm

Jill Geisler

  • With fear and anxiety rising amid current events, leaders of organizations should set a tone of calm and reassurance.
  • Leaders should be aware that their mood and outlook can be contagious within their teams.
  • Beyond just having an open-door policy, leaders should actively engage with their team members.

Even during so-called normal times, we cope with fear in the workplace. Fear is generated by deadlines; by bosses, colleagues or patients who can be demanding and critical; by roles and responsibilities so murky they set us up to fail; by changes in the industry or economy that might render us “expendable.”

Now, multiply all of those anxieties by a pandemic fear factor of at least 10.

We’re on high alert against a dangerous virus. We worry about financial insecurity and uncertainty. We fear that our children are falling behind academically or socially. Many of the family members and friends who comprise our support systems are available only remotely.

Is it any wonder that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers  detailed tips on coping with the stress of COVID-19, underscoring the importance of self-care?

Under these circumstances, it’s more important than ever for leaders to be present and transparent, and the calm in the storm. Research tells us that leaders’ emotions are contagious. If you are tense, terse or tentative, your team members don’t just sense your feelings. They begin to mirror them.

And make no mistake, people are watching you for cues. They read meaning into what you say or don’t say, your presence or absence, whom you’re paying attention to and whether you seem optimistic or pessimistic. 

You need to be aware of your impact on others. Assume that a spotlight follows you around wherever you go. 

Assuaging fear by reading the temperature in the room

Once you understand the power you have to affect others through every interaction, you can become intentional about using that ability for good. You can automatically ask yourself, “What does this person, or this team, need to feel right now, and how can I model that?”

When I led a newsroom of 100 people, my personal mantra was, It’s my job to be calm when they’re nervous and to get nervous when they’re too calm. When tension or fear was high, I had to speak with a measured tone, precise language and authority. I needed to lower the temperature of a “hot zone” and help people be cool and confident.

Conversely, if people seemed to miss the importance or gravity of a situation, I had to rally them with a tone that telegraphed urgency. I’d move more quickly on an initiative, to set a pace for everyone. I needed to raise the temperature a few degrees so that together we’d break a healthy sweat.

As a leader, you need to be intentional about these actions, and keep in mind that your goal is to get everyone focused. Why? Because fear affects our ability to think clearly, make rational decisions and regulate other emotions.

4 communications best practices to ease fear and anxiety

1. Think of yourself as a truth-teller, a myth-buster and a resource.

2. Tell people what you can about company plans moving forward.

3. Thank people for letting you know about rumor-mill falsehoods so you can set things straight.

4. Direct people to company resources (often delivered via Human Resources) like Employee Assistance Programs and family or medical leave.

Promoting reassurance through your interactions with employees

Open-door policies are good but insufficient. Some employees are reluctant to step into the boss’s office, even if you’ve said you welcome such visits. 

Those employees may be introverts. They may think an issue has to be dire before they bring it to you. They may never have had a heart-to-heart conversation with you and don’t know what to expect, so they hang back.

That’s why you need to reach out to people on a regular basis, especially those you see the least frequently. If you have deputies, make sure they take that approach as well.

This is an important time to ask, “How are you doing?” But follow up: “Is everything okay? Anything I can help you with?”

Remember that people may be hesitant to share their fears with you due to concern about being misjudged. The stronger your relationships, the more likely they are to speak truth to power.

If you are working at a distance, be even more methodical about keeping in contact.

Helping your organization emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic

The ongoing crisis has taught us about the strength and weaknesses of our company cultures and protocols.

Some companies have changed their approaches to remote work and flex time, for example, knowing they are helping stressed-out families without harming productivity.

They are emphasizing employee health and safety, not out of mere compliance with government guidelines or fear of liability, but as a demonstration of genuine care and concern. In no industry does this emphasis resonate more in the current environment than it does in healthcare.

Leaders in these forward-thinking organizations are not just talking about their team as “heroes.” They’re honoring them with respect and support while mitigating risk and fear. 


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