The past year has certainly thrown up some challenges and now that we are returning to offices and interacting more closely with each other, it has led to a few tricky situations arising when someone sneezes or coughs at work.
A client recently mentioned that her young son coughed in the supermarket (he swallowed some food too quickly!) and said she was met with glares and some mutterings about COVID from shoppers nearby. At a recent workshop, a participant commented about a team member repeatedly sneezing in the office. That team member suffers from hay fever and hadn’t taken an antihistamine drug that day. No-one in their team knew what to say or how to broach the questions on everyone’s mind at the time – “Have they had a COVID test? Should they go home? Who is monitoring this?”
A year or so ago we would have all been expecting people to take cold, flu or hay fever medications and deal with it themselves. In fact, we have sometimes been encouraged to go to work as it’s “just a cold” and in many workplaces stoicism over minor illness was viewed as a badge of honour. With the advent of COVID-19 all that has had to change and many of us now realise that in the past we have probably spread germs far and wide by working when a little unwell. Now we are being asked to stay home with even the slightest symptom and get tested.
What is required from organisations in this pandemic is for people leaders to agree and promote protocols for physically working together. This includes regularly reminding everyone of the importance of keeping themselves and their colleagues healthy through keeping safe distances, regular hand sanitising, temperature checks (as appropriate) and in particular stressing the need for any employee who feels sick to stay home and, if necessary, get tested for COVID-19. If this hasn’t happened in your workplace, you could ask your people leader to discuss it at a team meeting.
“I’m not currently aware of the protocols in terms of office sickness. It’s a bit unsettling and I’d like to discuss and agree on the team’s approach to illness. My suggestion is that if we have any symptoms, even if someone thinks it’s just hay fever or a cold, we get tested for COVID and then be supported to stay home until we are better no matter the result? Can we discuss this at the next team meeting?”
However, what if your colleagues haven’t been following these guidelines or you are worried about their coughs and sneezes in the office. If you know them well and generally have a good relationship with them, you could constructively observe they don’t seem well and provide some suggestions on what they could do.
“Jay it seems you have been sneezing a lot today. I know it’s a sensitive time right now sickness wise, are you feeling OK? Perhaps speak to Gisella (People Leader) about working from home until you feel better.”
“Chris I am worried about that cough of yours. Do you feel OK? How about you head off home and get yourself better? It’s important to be safe and follow health guidelines.”
If you don’t feel comfortable raising it with your colleague yourself then you can take your concerns to your Team Leader/Supervisor/Manager or Human Resources and ask them to intervene.
“Kerry has been working really hard since we returned to working in the office and seems unwell, sneezing and coughing. It’s worrying me he could be infecting others in the team. Please can Kerry be asked to work from home until he is no longer coughing and sniffling?
These can feel like awkward conversations, however it is important to raise and resolve these issues to ensure bad feelings and misunderstandings do not arise among team members. COVID-19 has taken our personal and professional lives into new and unchartered territories, however when navigating these situations, it is important to implement the fundamentals of tough conversations and approach all situations with empathy.
And if you have any doubts about yourself, colleagues or your team follow the government guidelines and inform your colleagues of your actions, this will help build a good COVID-Safe work culture.
Over the past few days we have received an influx of promotional marketing material – one reads “Massive changes have come to the workplace. In the past weeks, these times of uncertainty require your workforce to be flexible and resilient, and to reskill for the changes ahead.” It went on to say; “The most successful organisations are the ones that can navigate uncertainty, tackle challenges and pull together to drive innovation.”
Well I think we can all say we are currently facing uncertainty and challenges that we have never personally imagined or experienced before. Every day people are having to change ways of living and working. There is a lot of fear, concern, confusion and sorrow out there about how lives are being affected and changed and the impact this pandemic is having on all of us, right round the world. For those lucky enough to generate an income, it is hard to focus when we don’t know what the next moment will bring and we hear so much negative news.
During this time it is heartening to hear from clients, their stories of adaptation; learning about remote working set-ups; what it’s like to work along-side or opposite a partner (pets included) and what can be accomplished through on-line platforms such as Zoom, Skype etc. Interestingly for a number of our clients, especially in Local and State Government, internal discussions are taking place around a key question; “What is an essential service?”
For Team Leaders, Supervisors, Managers and Directors discussing tougher questions such as, ‘Is our role essential and what is our purpose?’ can evoke a lot of fear for already anxious staff. People have heightened levels of emotions related to remote working, the challenges of home schooling, what to do over the up-coming holiday period and how to care for the vulnerable, including elderly parents. We also have a generation of people in management and supervisory positions with family members at home who are facing their first experience of a recession / major economic downturn. It is an incredibly difficult time for everyone right now and for many, the discomfort that people now feel is similar to grief. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We trust this is temporary, but we don’t know how long for, it doesn’t feel that way and we realise things will be different in the future.
This is a challenging time for people leaders with emotions for everyone running high and very close to the surface. It is important that Team Leaders, Supervisors, Managers and Directors let people constructively vent their feelings and be heard more than ever. Displaying empathy now is critical for staff to feel they are supported, understood and truly listened to, which means listening carefully and acknowledging feelings and not judging or dismissing emotions.
So what can people leaders do or say to support and assist staff:
- Let people constructively vent their feelings without interrupting and validate feelings.
- Focus on single-tasking as opposed to multi-tasking. There can be many distractions for staff whilst working remotely so when on the phone or online system the focus has to be on the other person and what they are saying. This can be a challenge when others may also be at home working, schooling and/or there are distractions in the background. Using headphones, minimising other applications, turning off other mobile devices and “ping” notifications, shutting doors and thoughtful workspace arrangements may help here.
- We often say take a deep breath when things are overwhelming and this is a great thing to do to calm the mind, support physical health and aid regaining focus. We would encourage you and others to BREATHE maybe use a meditation app that might work for you and/or your staff. Ask people “What can we both do to help support you focus and to feel OK this week?” and commit to making this part of a weekly check-in.
- Maintain team rituals. Consider what can still be done to celebrate monthly birthdays to accommodate social distancing or Friday social drinks via on-line platforms. A number of clients are encouraging staff within teams to share a happy picture each day and/or week. I’ve even heard of a remote team wearing the same colour top on a particular day. The team are based in Orange, NSW. I’m not sure the colour was orange!
- Help people with paradigms of control. What are staff concerned about but cannot control? What can be influenced and what can be controlled? Coach people on actions that can be controlled to build their sphere of influence. Support people to focus on what can be achieved in the week and/or a day. Celebrate daily completion of a will-do list as opposed to focusing on the never ending to-do list.
- If appropriate now could be time to work on those jobs or tasks the team always means to do but doesn’t have time for. Try asking “What work or jobs have we often wanted to do, systems to improve or cheat sheets to develop but lacked the time, that we could start on now?”
- If you decide your team may not be seen as an essential service you can focus staff on seeing how they can help others and feel useful. Try finding this out by asking “What can we do this week to make ourselves useful and supportive to the organisation and our other colleagues?”
- This is a time for us to be kind to ourselves and others, to praise and appreciate our colleagues and our amazing front-line workers. Patience while we all work it out is important. Recognise people and provide sincere positive feedback “I know it has been a really tough couple of weeks with the transition to this way of working. Thanks for quickly adapting and having things up and running.”
Reaching out for help is a sign of strength. Please feel free to reach out to us at any time if you need assistance. Look after yourself, your teams and your colleagues in the coming weeks and/or months. Our thoughts are with you. Keep safe and socially conscious – Sarah and Patricia
The following Harvard Business Review articles below have some great suggestions to help:
Why is it that some people thrive in the face of challenge and adversity at work, while others panic and withdraw into themselves? And why is it some people appear to get ahead while others tread water, or slowly drown in the turbulent waters of life? Resilience is not a characteristic gifted to some individuals and not others. The key is that resilience is not a passive quality, but an active process.
In organisations it is fair to say that the effectiveness of large scale change is in some part due to the resilience of individuals to cope with the stress entailed in implementing or being on the receiving end of the change. While people can experience some stress as energising and exciting, too much stress is disabling and the circumstances that brought this about seen as adversity. Everyone has different resilience abilities and resources and luckily they can be built and enhanced.
Resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, adversity, trauma or tragedy. It means that, overall, you remain stable and maintain healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning in the face of disruption or chaos. If you have resilience, you may experience temporary disruptions in your life when faced with challenges, for instance, you may have a few weeks when you don’t sleep as well as you typically do. But you’re able to continue on with daily tasks, remain generally optimistic about life and rebound quickly. Resilience is very important to assist people cope with change and deal with stressful situations.
Resilience can help people deal with disappointments and setbacks without becoming depressed or negative, endure loss, chronic stress, traumatic events and other challenges. It will enable individuals to develop a reservoir of internal resources that can be drawn on, and it may protect against developing some mental illnesses. Resilience helps people survive challenges and even thrive in the midst of chaos and hardship. Resilience is a form of emotional buoyancy.
So how can we develop it? Some actions and topics for training that help build resilience are:
I read a newspaper article today commenting on how employers are currently seeking and recruiting for staff who have ‘likeability’ as well as technical ability in their field. The description of traits linked to ‘likeability’ fell very much into the domain of what Daniel Goleman labelled Emotional Intelligence in his 1994 book of the same name. Goleman had the same conclusion as the newspaper article; organisations want employees who get on with others, have a positive approach, are good to be around and get the job done. Good social skills, empathy for others and a level of self-awareness are important traits for developing and maintaining effective relationships in and out of work.
Recently we have been working with a couple of organisations on projects to develop staff awareness and skills in Emotional Intelligence, to build workplaces where people are engaged and where performance is high. As part of this work we have heard many stories from employees about people at all levels who displayed a lack of emotional intelligence, resulting in lower morale and productivity for those working with them. Some of the behaviours people disliked included:
- Managers and staff with large mood swings so people feel like they are ‘walking on eggshells’. “From one day to the next you never know whether to approach them or not and what kind of reception you will get, so you end up avoiding them” was one comment.
- Shouting and aggressive behaviour.
- Managers giving feedback in front of the other team members or in a public place. “The manager corrected me in front of a customer and I was humiliated” said one person. It made her not want to work with customers or the manager again.
- People who don’t interact with others or participate in the social niceties of the office such as not saying good day or hello and acknowledging others. Many of us have parents or guardians who would call this a lack of manners!
- Team members who don’t do their fair share either in the work of the team or in office protocols. “We have one person here who never washes up their cup and plates, leaves them in the office sink and expects everyone else to do it. They get annoyed when we ask them to take their turn, so we end up not asking them and being resentful!” was one example of this.
- People who are negative about most things. “This person is cynical about almost everything that happens and it is depressing and tiring to be around them,” commented one team member.
On the positive side, the following examples of good use of emotional intelligence were provided:
Are your people leaders equipped to deal with the “greyer” areas of inappropriate workplace behavior in order to prevent bullying and harassment?