Mental health: how to facilitate positivity in anxious teams during the coronavirus pandemic
The impact of coronavirus has been widely felt and it’s changing the way we work in many ways. During this time, it’s tempting to focus on the operational side and logistics of getting things done, but what HR should really prioritise is how to facilitate positivity in anxious teams.
Now, more than ever, we need to facilitate positive emotional health in our teams. The ongoing impact of the coronavirus on our wellbeing is both well documented and justified. Anxiety is on the rise and many of us are reporting feeling tired and unmotivated.
The past few months have brought about significant upheavel in employees' professional lives, as many are forced to work from home, in less than ideal environments whilst managing shifting and demanding priorities. At the same time, as we continue to consider what life will be like when things get ‘back to normal’, leaders and HR professionals are tasked with having to support teams to stay engaged, healthy and motivated in a changing and uncertain landscape.
In this uncharted professional territory we find ourselves in, so many of us are having to pivot, innovate and think of different ways to work and deliver. In order to do this, we have to feel positive.
One powerful, evidence-based way we can continue to feel positive and stay productive is to increase our ‘daily diet’ of positive thoughts. I will cover the specifics of what this is and why it’s important shortly, but first it’s worth acknowledging that this is not simply disregarding or ignoring the gravity of the current situation, or pushing down our justified negative emotions. Feeling positive or high energy may feel trivial, unrealistic, or luxurious to many of us, and it is essential to honour our emotions and moods in this time.
Whilst negative emotions are justified, however, they are not necessarily helpful. Stress, loneliness, boredom have all been shown to weaken the immune system, so encouraging techniques to manage this both in ourselves and our teams is more important than ever.
Broaden and build
Professor Barbara Frederickson has conducted extensive research on how positive emotions impact us. “When you are experiencing positive emotions like joy, interest, contentment and love, you will see more possibilities in your life [...] and positive emotions provide an enhanced ability to build skills and develop resources for use later in life,” she says.
Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory suggests that positive emotions encourage learning, increase resilience, improve creativity, engage our motivational processes, support learning and help us identify new opportunities. In contrast, negative emotions such as fear and anxiety can enforce us to become cognitively closed, making it virtually impossible to plan, engage and feel motivated.
In this uncharted professional territory we find ourselves in, so many of us are having to pivot, innovate and think of different ways to work and deliver. In order to do this, we have to feel positive. Neuroscience has shown us that positive approaches cause us to be more cognitively and perceptually open and engage motivational processes, whilst negative approaches hinder learning and deliver no lasting change.
So how can we both recognise and nurture negative emotions, whilst encouraging more positive emotions?
1. Do not disregard negative emotions
Research has shown that those who try to ‘be happy’ are less likely to attain it. Our negative emotions are important, they show us valuable information about how we are feeling, how we should behave and any physical changes we need to make in our external or internal environment. The temptation can often be to distract ourselves away from them, to stay busy so as not to experience these feelings. Whilst these can be effective techniques for some, when ignored, these fears and anxieties can shout even louder.
Facilitate spaces where employees can actively share their anxieties and encourage open, honest discourse and remove pressure to feel happy (we will come onto an alternative shortly).
2. Normalise negative feelings
Normalising is the technique of understanding that our feelings are not unique, justified or irrational. It allows us to simply observe our emotions rather than react to them and prevents us from feeling as though we are experiencing negative emotions whilst everyone else is thriving. When employees are feeling anxious, support them to normalise these feelings through creating open shared discussion within groups and teams. It is also worth noting that employees respond positively to senior members of staff sharing their vulnerabilities, where possible, facilitate cultures of normalising negative emotions from the top down, through sharing challenges and difficulties across all levels within a business.
3. Encourage a daily diet of positivity
The expression ‘daily diet’ of positivity comes from Barbara Frederickson’s research which shows that people who prioritise small actions that naturally bring about positive emotions are happier overall.
“People should cultivate positive emotions in their own lives and in the lives of those around them, not just because doing so makes them feel good in the moment, but also because doing so transforms people for the better and sets them on paths toward flourishing and healthy longevity. When positive emotions are in short supply, people get stuck. They lose their degrees of behavioural freedom and become painfully predictable – but when positive emotions are in ample supply, people take off. They become generative, creative, resilient, ripe with possibility and beautifully complex,” she says.
This is not encouraging teams to ‘feel happy’ but more accurately empowering teams to make time for things that bring about positive emotions, in small ways, multiple times a day.
This can be as simple as sharing home exercise videos, creating virtual support groups, sharing meditation resources. The most important consideration here for leaders and HR professionals is, more than ever, giving employees the autonomy to manage their own schedules and allowing them to increase their daily diet of positivity.
What it means to be productive has seen a fundamental shift, now more than ever. Encouraging teams to take walks, play with their pets, spend quality time with their children, take time out to bake, garden or read is not a reduction in productivity, it is, in fact, the only way we can maintain it.
Interested in this topic? Read How to help employees take care of their own wellbeing during a crisis.