I have heard repeatedly in the past 6 weeks from consultant colleagues who have long-term relationships with a wide range of businesses in the UK and also in Europe that business owners and managers are currently struggling with distress as well as stress, underneath all the pragmatic steps they are taking to safeguard their staff and operations in response to the Covid-19 crisis. At the same time, there is widespread conjecture about whether radical change will be introduced now that the vulnerabilities in how our public and private sector organisations function have been laid bare. The question facing those of us who want such change is how to gain traction for our ideas before it is too late? The distress, I suggest, is a key factor and could sway things in either direction.
When circumstances are as extreme as now, it’s no surprise that people want to “get back to normal”. Lockdown deprives most of us of activities, experiences and social contacts which nourish our lives and upon which we depend for enjoyment, a sense of wellbeing and simple convenience. Such deprivation risks undermining everyone’s personal resources in ways which are well understood and, thank goodness, being widely discussed. It also can lower our ability to recover from the kind of distress my colleagues are describing: pain at the risks that everyone is facing (where ordinary life suddenly feels dangerous), and also at the prospect of their staff and colleagues for whom they are responsible not having enough money or perhaps even jobs; and fear and anguish at the real and imminent potential for whole businesses or discrete projects, in which they’ve made massive personal and financial investments, to fold. These are just some examples of the range of experiences. Additionally, stress itself is easily generated by the pandemic, for example through: long hours of concentrating on matters that are uncertain, huge and overwhelming; difficulties in sleeping; guilt when one is financially secure if we’re close to people who are not and triggered into much greater risk by the pandemic; repeated worrying. Such manifestations of stress can produce a need to wall oneself off to protect oneself, which results in an additional layer of rigidity. Another way of thinking about getting back to “normal” is getting back to what’s familiar – and therefore comforting. Amid distress and stress there is a great need for comforting.
Within a business framework in which most of us have been conditioned to leave personal matters outside the office, it’s possible that owners and managers expect of themselves that they’ll get on with what practically needs to be done and stifle and bottle up both the distress and stress, try to separate themselves from both. It seems to me that consultants and coaches, who are skilled in teasing out the emotional elements of why people struggle at work, could play a vital role right now. It’s possible that an explicit message needs to be given that to make time to attend to the distress and stress needs to be a priority – as important as sorting out practical matters. Ministering to distress may even be the most important priority at this stage of the unfolding impacts of Covid-19. This is not only because the distress is valid. It is also because without due attention it is unlikely to ease, but could well, less and less consciously over time, build in more distortion to any person’s ability to respond freely and creatively to the demands that lie ahead. Of course, the same is true of stress. As we emerge from Covid-19 and try to build the society we want afterwards, we need everyone whole if we stand a chance of moving towards more holistic systems. As has perhaps been done many times before, insisting the time be devoted now to how business owners and managers are feeling and emphasising that this focus provides much-needed calming which will support them to make better decisions, and release more energy to be able to keep working at high levels over the coming weeks and months could be the most valuable intervention consultants and coaches can make. Privileging such a holistic, whole-person approach may even counter-act the personal/business separation which in and of itself contributes so much to the negative impacts of so many businesses; could it counter-act it enough to be a vital ingredient in facilitating profound, structural and strategic change in how we organise our affairs beyond Coronavirus?