Since lockdowns began in March 2020, many of us became experts at surviving: hoarding food and Clorox wipes; ordering an excess of takeout to ward off the burnout of caregiving; and overspending just to feel something. It’s safe to say that most employees’ lizard brains have been on high alert for the past year and a half.
Now, as we begin our descent into a post-pandemic world, this mindset isn’t so easily switched off. But as organizational psychologist and leadership keynote speaker, Nick Tasler, says, this kind of survival response was meant to be a sprint, not a marathon. “It’s designed to get us out of immediate danger, but it isn’t a pace we can maintain for long periods,” he says, noting that this heightened sense of awareness and always-on alertness can easily morph into a serious case of burnout.
At an organizational level, an excessive focus on the short term can be a serious obstacle to growth, Tasler says, and can lead to stagnant thinking and missed opportunities. “Both of those issues are the things that many leaders have recently started viewing as something like a post-pandemic hangover.”
While going back to “normal” will be a slow process, leaders who are starting to orchestrate the return of their workforces can still do a lot toward mitigating these effects. Here are four strategies for helping teams let go of a survival mentality:
1. Call out the issue and redirect
To put it simply: Survival behavior often speaks to worries about the unknowable. And for many employees—a return to the workplace sparks new feelings of insecurity. That’s why calling out the issue is one of the best ways to make teams feel more at ease.
“Leaders often underestimate how powerful their words can be,” says Tasler. Instead of simply assuming that employees just “know” it’s okay to move out of survival mode, he explains that it’s incredibly helpful to hear their leaders explicitly give them permission to once again think about thriving in the long-term instead of merely surviving in the short-term.
Tasler suggests taking a beat to congratulate teams on how marvelously they responded to the crisis, as well as making sure to redirect their attention toward more future-focused strategic planning.
2. Center wellness
“It might seem like prioritizing wellness would be a natural survival response, but it’s not always a straightforward option when we’re grappling with many stressors,” says Dr. Joel Minden, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss.
During the pandemic, employees may have adopted self-soothing behaviors like anxiously over-checking the quality of their work, putting off other responsibilities, or staying up too late to make sure their projects were perfect. But over time, all of these coping mechanisms can have a negative impact on their wellbeing.
“As much as we might believe that working harder is the solution to work-related threats,” says Dr. Minden, “there’s a limit to what we can handle, especially when we’re not taking care of our health the way we should.”
Here are some ways leaders can promote self-care and stress management:
- Order healthy lunches for teams when work gets intense
- Work with employees to accommodate their requests for personal time
- Offer to help out when it’s clear an employee really needs a break
3. Foster an atmosphere of trust
According to Dr. Minden, “if employees believe they have no other options, they’ll continue to prioritize work-related survival behaviors.” It’s important then, to remind teams to pay attention to the emotional cues that can put them at risk for these choices.
What this comes down to is that as a leader, fostering a culture of trust is essential for helping people overcome their pandemic-induced anxieties. Letting your team know it’s okay to place boundaries with colleagues when expectations are unreasonable, for example, prevents them from skimping on self-care or neglecting other personal responsibilities.
At the same time, making it clear that they can communicate with each other—as well as with you, as a leader—about their concerns and struggles, helps create norms of respect and acceptance in the workplace. “When workers know that they can trust their colleagues to be supportive, it becomes so much easier to remain committed to high-level work performance without compromising health,” Dr. Minden says.
4. Shift your team’s mindset
If not handled well, returning to the office can be an overwhelming experience that triggers employees’ survival response. Having an open conversation about the challenges faced over the past year and a half, is a critical component for helping teams move forward.
Tasler advises leaders to engage people in activities that signal that you’re entering a new season, and that the old season has passed. One such activity involves having employees make a list of things they’ve learned over the course of the pandemic, and then have them craft a clear one- to three-year goal they want to achieve.
“Of course that doesn’t mean that the pandemic is over any more than the first sunny day in March means that winter weather is gone for good,” Tasler says. “But talking about what you learned during the heart of winter is another signal that it’s okay to think about and [start] planning for spring.”
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist who writes often about the intersection of productivity, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The New York Times, BBC Future, New York Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, and more.