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Why staff who say "I'm fine" during COVID-19 may not be - and how to coax out the truth? Lead by example.

1. Market Feedback

Intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 on specific financial services sectors, not published by media. 

A. Revised strategy & structure, next normal, changed roles

More than one client now has a revised strategy. For most of the CEOs and teams we’re talking to, that’s really just a revision, or tilt, not a fundamental change. For others we’re talking to, however, the changes are more substantial because of COVID19 or organisational maturity (where COVID-19 has been a catalyst).

The pandemic has a been a catalyst to accelerate some changes and reprioritise investments in technology, capability and physical office changes.

While we saw, early on, only a few leaders in and outside our client organisations “bunker down” in expectation of exceedingly tough economic times ahead, that’s now a widely shared view and approach.

The businesses least affected and best placed are those with almost guaranteed annuity income streams, ample ‘time to live’ cash reserves in pre-revenue or ‘lumpy income’ businesses, or otherwise COVID19-resilient revenue or inflows.

If you’re one of those folks, you’re not wasting this crisis. For the most part, you’re moving forward making changes that respond to the new environment but that also position you well for the far longer term.
That’s in part because you can’t predict the near term. You’re telling us that this month, this year and the next three years are harder to navigate than out beyond that time. So it’s the 3+ year horizon many of you are sharpening your focus on in these investment decisions.

B. Mental health

Connexus, the publisher, put this fairly and squarely on the industry agenda last week in a yet-to-be released leadership roundtable on the topic. In short, COVID19 has sparked dramatically increased inbound calls to mental health support services. Anecdotally, as well as what you may have seen in media, it’s triggered issues for some with pre-existing conditions, but also those with no prior known mental health issues.

2. Management responses

This section outlines how CEOs and their leadership teams are responding

A. OH & S: tired teams, fatigue-induced mental fog… and mental health

Many of the 20+ senior executives I speak to each week are citing fatigue and mental fogginess – many are somewhat worn out.

Whether due to concern about COVID19 more generally, economic pressure or the result of sustained ‘high alert’, many of you are feeling, or seeing in your teams and customers, stress, anxiety and, in some cases, deterioration in mental health.

These are now topics that the C-suite, mental health support organisation leaders and even clinical professionals themselves are openly talking about - including in terms of their own emotional state. This is aimed at helping remove the stigma that still exists around disclosure at work. It’s seen by the experts as essential to pave the way for better outcomes –more real conversations are a starting place for supportive action in both workplaces and society more generally.

The feedback from mental health services suggest that while some have been inundated, there are additional services available, including scaled up telehealth. They tell us that the more people at need who feel able to get help, the better the outcomes. Early intervention is highly effective – better health and happiness, and ultimately, more lives saved.

The context, shared at the Connexus roundtable, is that academics in this area are predicting that economic downturn will drive a higher suicide rate. Employers, insurers and funds are increasingly aware of this and turning to early intervention and support.

Some of you are simply taking time off and making sure your people do the same.

Running on high adrenaline (in COVID19 response mode for example) for a sustained period, accordingly to one psychiatrist in a recent workplace health conversation, is risky.

“Long term stress can lead to anxiety. Long term anxiety, untreated, can lead to depression.” He was talking about people with no mental health red flags or prior history. It’s a sobering thought.

3. CEO guidance regarding coronavirus responses

This section provides our guidance on management and communication responses

A. Vulnerable leadership

Easier said than done, but we’re hearing more of this among clients and contacts.

What does that look like?

  • CEOs prepared speak openly about their own emotional journey and how they manage that alongside leadership
  • Creating an atmosphere that encourages an open conversation about mental health, self-care and productivity in these times
  • Checking in on their people in private, and asking their teams to do the same
B. Anonymous employee feedback

Not everyone will speak up about mental health or other less personal concerns that are important for leadership to hear. Run an anonymous employee feedback program, if you don’t have one yet, and encourage those around you to role model providing candid feedback – speaking truth to power. Better to have issues aired openly and to role model “listening leadership” than have problems “leak” or remain unaddressed. “Leak” might mean employer review sites (yes your people and candidates use these!), social media platforms, simply silent opposition, passive or disengaged behaviours, and all that follows.

C. Red flag reports and context analysis: keeping your peripheral vision

There are whole textbooks and B school academic case studies devoted to what happens to teams who are under sustained pressure for a long period. It’s not all good.

Keeping your peripheral vision is crucial in situations where a close, tightly knit team – even when it’s working very well – work under pressure against a unifying enemy for a sustained period. Call it “group think”, paradigm blindness or a lack of sensitivity to weak signals that should be amplified.

Guard against this via:

  • External context analysis
  • Rotating team members
  • Independent “red flag” reports.

 4. Appendix: How to help us help you

This briefing is collective intelligence gathered, anonymised and shared with you by my firm for the greater good. We’ve taken the view, based on client feedback, that the collective benefit to you all takes precedence over normal competitive pressures at a time like this.

This is an excerpt from one of our client COVID-19 CEO response briefings. For more COVID-19 response resources and guidance, visit our COVID-19 Response page

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communication strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here.

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