Getting ready to reopen your business? You may be feeling elated about starting up again, and your employees may be pleased to get back to work as well. But you and they will likely go through a whole collection of emotions, both good and bad, over the next few months. You should be prepared to give them the support they need -- and take care of your own emotional state as well.
While the current pandemic is an event unlike any other in our lifetimes, it is also a widespread disaster. And although it's been more than 100 years since an illness has affected the entire world at this scale, we have lots of precedent for disasters that devastate entire communities, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and wars.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that even when a disaster has passed, its survivors typically continue to experience stressful emotions. These emotions can include sadness, grief, and anger, the agency reports. It adds that "reactions to the disaster may occur not only in people with direct experience of a disaster, but also in those who were indirectly affected through repeated exposure to media coverage of the incident." In other words, in case you were in any doubt, the pandemic is taking an emotional toll on all of us.
Emotional reactions to a disaster tend to follow a pattern, the agency reports. Even though every individual is different, we all experience events such as the pandemic as members of a community and our community's emotions and reactions are likely to affect us as well. SAMHSA has identified six phases of emotional reactions that disasters typically evoke.
1. The pre-disaster phase: When a disaster is on the horizon, people feel fear and uncertainty. They may also feel helpless to prevent the disaster, or guilty that they didn't do more to prepare for it.
2. The impact phase: Typical emotions at this phase are shock and panic or disbelief, followed by intense efforts to protect oneself and one's family.
3. The heroic phase: In this phase, right after the disaster, people typically leap into action, possibly fueled by adrenaline. These early efforts are often ineffective, and this phase is when people are likeliest to take dangerous risks.
4. The honeymoon phase: Right after the disaster, people have great optimism that everything will get back to normal soon. (This is something most of us have already seen, and perhaps experienced ourselves.) It's a time of positivity and community bonding that typically lasts only a few weeks, according to SAMSHA.
5. The disillusionment phase: During this phase, people realize that a return to normalcy will take a lot longer than they had hoped. "As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface," the agency writes. The disillusionment phase can last a very long time, and these negative feelings can resurface later, particularly on the anniversary of the event.
6. The reconstruction phase: This is when people finally begin true recovery, adjusting to a new normal and working to rebuild their lives. According to SAMSHA, this typically begins around the anniversary of the disaster.
Handling the disillusionment phase
What does all this mean to you and your employees? When you and they return to work, you may all be in the honeymoon phase, able to leave home and go to the office, or anywhere else you please. But in time, your employees and you may find yourselves in the disillusionment phase, especially when restrictions are only gradually eased, or if you're struggling to rebuild your business in an economy that remains crippled by the pandemic. Or, worse, if there's a new wave of cases in a few months, as some have warned.
What should you do? Start by being patient with yourself and your employees as you ride this emotional rollercoaster. Feeling energetic and hopeful one day and lethargic and depressed the next is perfectly normal at this time. As you slog through the disillusionment phase and toward the reconstruction phase, it's smart to be especially mindful of employees with past substance abuse issues, since this phase carries a heightened risk of relapses. Employees without such issues could still be facing emotional problems, as the pandemic and social distancing orders strain household relationships. And those with school-age children are also facing the pressures of home schooling, sometimes while also trying to do their jobs.
As a small or new business, you may not have an employee assistance program, or the wherewithal to launch one now. Still, collecting information on how and where employees can get help -- from state or county agencies, for instance -- and making that information available may prove invaluable. So can a simple willingness to listen when the people who work for you need to talk.
Even if a vaccine is found and the economy recovers, most of us won't feel normal for a very long time. Acknowledge that fact, and give your employees, and yourself, the support you all need to grieve for what we've all lost, and the time to heal.