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Businesses must act fast to help employees overcome helplessness

Friday January 22, 2021

COVID-19 HAS HAD IMMEDIATE AND DRAMATIC IMPACTS ON ALL OF US, BUT IT IS A CRISIS WITH A DIFFERENCE. WHILE MOST EMERGENCIES INVOLVE SHORT BUT HIGH INTENSITY PERIODS OF STRESS, THIS PANDEMIC HAS STRETCHED TENSION OUT OVER THE COURSE OF AN ENTIRE YEAR. IT’S A SITUATION THAT CAN LEAD TO PROBLEMS AS EMPLOYEES ATTEMPT TO ADAPT TO A CONSTANTLY CHANGING ENVIRONMENT.  

The challenge for employers is to intervene before adverse impacts cause lasting damage to businesses and their people. The pressure is on to support their employees to be well and do well.  

Loss of control 

In the space of a few short months, we have seen some employees working from home, some from their normal place of work (but in very different circumstances) and others placed on furlough. Change is both dramatic and constant as the virus spreads. While the term ‘the new normal’ has become widespread, any kind of normality is a distant memory for many. 

Despite the welcome news of promising vaccines, it may seem to some employees that there is no end in sight. As lockdowns have migrated to complex tiered restrictions, and back to lockdowns again, workers can feel that they have no control. Uncertainty, insecurity and stress appear to be the only outcomes, no matter what actions workers take. 

Learned helplessness  

Perceptions of powerlessness can lead to a phenomenon, first discovered in animals, called ‘learned helplessness’. It is a state that’s triggered when people feel they have no influence over their environment — and become incapable of taking action to bring about change. 

The duration of the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing the emergence of learned helplessness symptoms across businesses and sectors. It’s clearly not something that any company wants in its workforce — and demands immediate and positive action.  

Reconnect to take back control  

The objective is to bring back much of what COVID-19 has taken away: structure; purpose; and community.  

The critical step is to reconnect unconnected workers, whether they are on-site, remote or furloughed. Such a wide geographical spread, with many staff no longer able to access work devices, can be problematic. The answer is to harness the power of modern smart devices (which virtually all staff will have access to) — and provide a communication platform through a workplace app.  

These apps have a wide range of features which combine to allow re-engagement with company and colleagues — particularly important as loneliness is on the rise. The business can share important messages such as, plans to return to normality, updates on financial performance and to remind staff of the support and rewards open to them. It offers a welcome structure in an unstructured world.  

Learn helpfulness  

The workplace can be so much more than the space where employees go to do their jobs. It often brings structure, a sense of purpose and is also somewhere to meet friends and colleagues. For so many, the workplace is inextricably linked with feelings of self-worth. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the workplace, and how without it, workers can struggle to cope with even the simplest of challenges. 

There are a number of apps available to help employees to overcome helpfulness. Connecting with people and regaining a sense of shared purpose re-boots an important social and professional cycle: workers feel visible, valued and valuable once again — with the power to control their environment and effect change.  

By: Dr Lee Williams, Chief Commercial Officer - Personal Group

Article published in the HRDirector on 22nd January 2021

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