When a team led by a Harvard researcher studied the psychological impact of negative news recently, it came to a startling conclusion. Just three minutes spent scanning grim news in the morning increased the chances a person would be in a bad mood six hours later by 27 percent. Even tiny doses of bad news have long-lasting, negative impacts on our psychology.
Which is particularly troubling considering how much bad news we've had lately. After more than two years or plague, 2022 has served up war, famine, a series of climate disasters, regular mass murder, and the very worst forms of political division. Sometimes it's easy to mistake your morning newspaper for the scarier sections of Revelations.
Coping with this avalanche of bad news is a challenge to the mental health of us all (not to mention of the health of the republic and the planet... but that's a different column). But it's also a particular challenge to business leaders given just how distracting and depressing research shows negative headlines to be. How do you process your own pain and confusion while helping your team stay sane and, ideally, also get some work done? How do you balance compassion and business objectives?
These aren't issues traditional business education much prepares you for, but expert help is available. A recent HBR piece by former Harvard dean turned coach Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien, head of communications at Humu, offered advice on how to be a good boss in terrible times. The complete piece is well worth a read, but I've boiled down three of the most important takeaways below.
1. Start before the next tragedy.
Your efforts at keeping morale up in challenging times can't start after the latest horrifying headline. You need to win trust before tragedy strikes. "You can't expect employees to feel safe opening up... if you've never previously made an effort to ensure they feel comfortable having identity-based discussions," West Duffy and Fosslein write.
That doesn't necessarily mean debating politics and identity at work. What it does mean is making sure employees feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. Whether your employees spent their weekend at a church potluck dinner, marching in their local gay pride parade, or volunteering for their favorite cause, they should feel comfortable talking about it around the office (or on a videoconference) on Monday.
"If I don't feel comfortable telling you about these things that I do in my off time, or things that are connected to my identity, then how am I going to feel comfortable telling you when things are bad?" Angelica Leigh, a professor who studies diversity asks in the article.
2. Acknowledge the awfulness.
When the world seems like one giant dumpster fire, it can be tempting to try and seal your team off from the flames behind a protective wall of silence. But ignoring terrible news doesn't boost productivity. It just makes you look clueless or cruel.
"If you say nothing, your team will assume you either don't know or don't care about world events--which will erode trust," the pair warn. Depending on the size of your team, either gather them together or send an email to address whatever is new and horrible.
What should you say? That depends on both who you are (be authentic) and what the latest event is. But West Duffy and Fosslein suggest two guiding principles--"communicate like a human and from the heart" and "provide a path forward."
"That might mean creating an opt-in space for people to process their emotions... offering employees paid time off if they need it, or sharing other resources or company policies that might be helpful during a time of crisis," they explain.
3. Help each employee to process in their own way.
When faced with horrible news, some people distract themselves with work. Others reach out to trusted friends to process their emotions. Still others only feel better when they're taking positive action to effect change. Don't put people on the spot or dictate how they respond, but do offer them space to process in their own way.
That might mean having a relevant employee resource group host a discussion, loosening expectations for a few days while people come to terms with whatever has happened, or working with an employee to re-prioritize their schedule to create some more breathing room. If appropriate, it also could mean organizing a volunteer opportunity or fundraising drive to channel employees' desire to take action.
Whatever steps you end up taking, communicate that you're there for your team. "Make it clear that your door is always open," the authors advise. "You might say something like, 'In light of ______, I want to reiterate that if there is anything I or the organization can do to help you in the coming weeks, do not hesitate to let me know. And if you need to take time to decompress, please do so.'"
These steps are, of course, not a complete answer to the fraught but important question of how business leaders should respond to the challenges we face. When and how to take a stand is a question for a much longer article than this. But while you're pondering your responsibilities don't neglect essential psychological first aid for your team. Ignoring horrible things doesn't make them go away. Acknowledging reality and offering human support and connection will help, however.