An “emotional triaging” technique can help managers identify early warning signs of COVID-19 burn-out and take appropriate actions.
The COVID-19 world is marked by a high degree of uncertainty and existential fear, a dearth of social interaction, the convergence of professional and personal space, a lack of physical activity and an obsessive focus on hygiene and social distancing. For professionals, it amounts to a toxic combination that elevates stress levels and increases the risk of burn-out. Virtually no one – and no organisation – is immune.
Now more than ever, every manager should become sensitive to the mental health of their teams, not to mention themselves.
But few managers have formal training in this arena, which means their ability to directly intervene in the most severe cases is limited. What managers need first and foremost is a set of tools to help identify when an employee is seriously struggling. They can then take appropriate steps to ensure the sufferer has access to the necessary resources, before the problem becomes so big that it’s overwhelming.
This sounds straightforward, but it’s actually a complex and delicate matter. Especially during the early stages of burn-out, people are reluctant to be emotionally open with their manager for fear of being judged a “stressed-out employee”. For a manager to approach the issue head-on with blunt questions may backfire. Therefore, we advocate for a three-step system that we call “emotional triaging”.
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1. Check-in with the team
Several studies indicate that group emotions have a direct effect on group behaviour, with regards to cooperation and performance but evaluating them needs to be done according to good professional standards. Checking-in is an intentional practice for a team to start a meeting. When the team is aware of potential personal distractions, it’s easier to focus on the primary task or project itself.
Checking-in increases self-awareness and the cohesion of teams as team members become less judgmental. Be aware that certain team members might struggle more in sharing, such as introverts, outsiders or junior employees.
We suggest a pragmatic approach for emotional checking-in that can work even in the virtual space. Ask team members to self-evaluate on a scale of 1-10 (e.g. via a Zoom poll) in response to questions such as “What is your energy level? What is your stress level in the current working environment?” Adding one or two explorative questions can give further insights into the emotional well-being of the team. For example: “What are the three challenges you consider as the most important to address at the moment for you and the team?”
2. Individual deep dives
However, some employees might still feel intimidated. Drawing them out will require individual attention and sensitivity. Hence, we suggest including deep dives as part of regular conversations. The objective is to explore further for early signs of stress. Avoid directly asking “Are you stressed?” as this might trigger a denial or defensive behaviour. A better way to start is to be open about how stress is affecting you, establishing from the outset that the topic is not taboo. This shows vulnerability and triggers reciprocity in others.
From there, consider asking open questions such as “How do you manage your current workload, tons of e-mails and the virtual work? What do you consider as the main challenges in the current situation?” These general questions can start a short discussion in which you can explore potential stressors.
These virtual conversations are much better managed if both parties have audio and video enabled. That way, you can pick up on red flags in the employee’s body language.
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In scanning for early warning signs, managers can use our “Stress APGAR” framework to evaluate stress levels.