Handling Employee Relations During a Pandemic

Everyone is feeling the stress of this time in one way or another. As the leader of your company, that might require some adjustments in how you relate to your team.

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For more than half a year, we’ve been living with the tension of this pandemic. It’s wearing on all of us.

Living under constant stress, for months on end, is exhausting. It would be nice if we knew when things would get back to normal, but there is no end in sight. The effects of long-term stress are dangerous. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress “can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger or irritability.

“Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.”

It’s impossible to escape the stress of these uncertain times. Not only do we need to learn to cope for ourselves, but also for those around us, such as our employees. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Be flexible with employees.

You aren’t the only one under stress. From your perspective, others may have it easier than you. But don’t mistake that as an excuse for inappropriate behavior. It’s all relative, and you don’t know the details of their lives or their capacity for stress.

Schools are largely a mess, so parents may need more help or flexibility than you would typically offer. These things can be difficult to accommodate in our industry, so you may have to compromise on operational idealism for the time being. Be sure to consult with a human resources professional if you aren’t sure how to accommodate employee needs appropriately while maintaining your business.

2. Don’t push one individual or group too hard.

You may not like to admit it, but there are one or two employees who you rely on and push harder than anyone else. You know they’ll take the jobs no one else will take, and they’ll pick up the slack when you need it.

It’s one thing to lean on these employees during a crazy 48-hour pipe freeze event or a random week when everyone seems to call in sick. But you can’t push these superstar employees for months on end without a break. They will burn out, and you will lose them. Push other employees to step up. And be sure to show extra appreciation when employees go above and beyond.

3. Prepare for difficult customers.

Customer service is always a challenging aspect of the job. Unfortunately, customers are coping with long-term stress too. Unemployment is rampant, people are sick and everything is confusing and scary.

In our work, we are often delivering bad news, so tough customer service situations are inevitable. Now more than ever, you may deal with your fair share of nasty or frustrating customers. When you already feel stretched thin, this is challenging. Remember that ideal customer service is firm and solution-focused. Try to give people grace, and remind yourself it isn’t personal. Your team may need this reminder too.

4. Take time to have fun.

The best way to defuse the tension of stress is to take time to have fun. Do nice things for your staff and co-workers when you can. Fun doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Sometimes simple is best. Play a funny team-building game at the morning meeting in lieu of policy reminders and bad news. Relax a little with crazy-hat Friday or Hawaiian shirt day. Hold a chili or cookie cook-off.

5. Listen (even if you can’t fix the problem).

Employees need to vent. It’s hard to listen to someone else complain when you have a ton on your own plate. If you are the type whose immediate reaction is to fix other people’s problems, hold back that impulse. You’ll only stress yourself and your employees out more.

If you aren’t sure when employees need to vent versus when they are looking for a solution, try asking. Let them get it all out without interrupting or taking sides. Once they wrap up their lament, you might say something like, “I’m sorry this happened and that you are feeling this way. How can I help?” It may surprise you how often they say it was enough to get it off their chest or that they “just wanted you to know.”

6. Have someone you can talk to yourself.

You aren’t a martyr. Just like how your staff needs support from you, you need someone to talk to about your stress, burdens and concerns. This can be a spouse or friend, but also consider the benefits of a professional counselor or therapist. You don’t have to be depressed or ill to talk to a pro. Social workers and mental health professionals can help you gain perspective, teach you coping mechanisms and work with you through difficult moments.

As we all learn to cope with the “new normal” of the world and hope that things calm down, we need to be there for each other. You have a responsibility to show up for the people in your life. That includes your family, staff and yourself. 

If we all do our part to help make life easier, we might just shift the tide a bit. This isn’t the time to push harder, it’s a time to take care of the people we care about. 

About the Author

Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupstate.com.


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