Keeping 'first things first' during a crisis
In times of crisis an organisation is stripped to essentials. Its priorities and what it really believes are laid bare. Nice-to-haves give way to must-haves. Leadership language becomes militaristic, directive and an organisation’s leaders receive praise for their ability to take quick steps to ensure organisational survival. An organisation's stated values might not even come up during times of crisis. This means that things like diversity, equality, mental wellbeing or safeguarding, which are difficult to navigate at the best of times, can fall right off the table when times are tough.
While we know that crises magnify vulnerabilities, marginalisation and discrimination we often don't consider that our response can exacerbate these. The crisis comes before all else so in trying to get the crisis 'right' we can get so much else wrong.
What does this mean for organisations right now?
Organisations can revert to traditional, homogenous leadership structures.
At the best of times, organisations can have limited diversity in leadership and decision-making. When faced with unprecedented and debilitating change, even progressive organisations can revert to homogenous decision-making. This usually means a group of white, middle-aged, HQ-based men taking decisions which will impact everyone - globally - with no diversity in the room. Having a diversity of views is critical to knowing what the true impact of those decisions will be. So often the views of the younger intern, or staff in the global south, or LGBT+ staff, or staff of BAME backgrounds will be completely ignored during times of crisis to the determinent of the entire organisation.
Many women are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus workload.
There is ample evidence to suggest women bear the brunt of childcare and caregiving even without coronavirus adding extra complexity. How many women in our organisations are trying to home school, run a household, care for elderly relatives, or special needs children and complete a full day’s work? Are any extra resources made available to them?
People are working in abusive environments.
The UK Health and Safety at Work Act requires organisations to risk assess all locations where employees work – even at home. In the rapid, mass move to isolation and social distancing this rule is being ignored. But, we are ignoring it to the harm of some of our colleagues. Women’s Aid suggests that 1.3 million women in the UK will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime – that’s 3% of the UK female
population – and only 18% of women who experience abuse at home will ever report it. While these statistics relate to women any gender can suffer domestic abuse. It is a huge hidden
problem exacerbated by the high levels of uncertainty, financial stresses and time together in the home. If we are directing people to work from home we should make them as safe as possible while doing so. This doesn’t mean asking them directly if they’re experiencing abuse (although it might) but educating our workforce on signs of abuse and actions they can take if they see those.
Separation is a hidden hurdle for many. Many people are living for work away from family, their home countries and in isolation from their normal support structures they’ve built to cope with these. For example, many are separated from partners and children, are expatriates, are just out of university or single parents (of any gender). For some, work can be a healthy way to connect and engage. For others, work can be detrimental and overwhelming. Having the organisational ability to see and flex for individual circumstances is critical.
Mental health resources can be unknown or out of reach. While everyone is coping with unusual amounts of stress and uncertainty, those who were already vulnerable to anxiety, depression, or coping with other mental health issues will bear an additional load if they cannot access the psychological support and therapies they need. Employees who haven't previously accessed mental health resources might need to be encouraged or reminded how to do so. As Sonia Thompson writes for Forbes.com: “Demonstrating a company and brand culture that respects and treats people like family, no matter where they are from or what types of differences, they may have is more important now than ever.” As we navigate our new reality, we need to remember that we are going to be judged not just for how we responded during the initial coronavirus pandemic but also who we were and how we maintained our values during the coronavirus pandemic. Let's make sure our commitment to our values doesn't become part of how we 'used to' do business.