Today, as the looming threat of a second COVID-19 wave lingers; the November election nears; massive floods, wildfires, and hurricanes continue to threaten people’s safety; and social isolation continues to be an ongoing reality, anxieties are undoubtedly mounting.
In fact, one study found that Google searches for "panic attack" and "anxiety attack" had skyrocketed in recent months. And a Kaiser Family Foundation report that examined national and state-level data on mental health both before and now during the Coronavirus pandemic found that over one-third (36.5 percent) of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 11 percent in 2019. On top of this, according to a recent study from MetLife, 34 percent of employees say not being able to connect with co-workers in person as much as they used to is a top source of stress and anxiety.
We are at a milestone moment and an inflection point, particularly for business leaders. How—amid what is surely a very scary and confusing time—can CEOs and executives incite connectedness, collaboration and culture? How can leaders encourage engagement from their living rooms? How do we retain a relative normal and keep people connected as we continue to work from home?
As the CEO of an international company with hundreds of employees, and from my role advising C-suite leaders, I understand the enormous pressure leaders are under to do and say the right thing. While that can be increasingly challenging, particularly amid mounting pressures and an increasingly anxious workforce, what I’ve found is that the answer lies in three key attributes that are critical to leadership communications: strength, visibility, and unity.
Last week, Just Capital released a new survey together with The Harris Poll, examining how U.S. workers are evaluating corporate America in 2020. The results painted a clear picture: In the wake of the pandemic, a struggling economy, and national calls for racial equity, nearly 70 percent of Americans want CEOs to take a stand on important social issues (up almost 10 percent from a year ago). This data comes on the heels of a separate Harris Poll, released in July, which found that 72 percent of Americans trust companies more than the federal government when it comes to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and racial equality movement. What this tells us is that now is a critical time for leaders and executives to double down on fast-paced, decisive thinking—despite the mounting challenges of today’s remote reality. This will in turn institute trust, which I’ve long said is what truly effective leadership hinges on.
Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, in his recent earnings call, said it best: “We need to participate, [and] engage differently...” He was talking about external efforts, about being closer to customers and rethinking the role of the company as a platform for change—but this very much applies to internal communications, as well.
Today, it’s critical that leaders rethink their visibility levels; after all, a leader with vision is what keeps people focused and engaged. Granted, that can be a difficult task in today’s all-virtual, all-the-time environment—but its impacts are cyclical. When employees and the general public see CEOs and business leaders speaking up, they feel proud of the business’s purpose, and that in turn is what encourages them to show up to work every day—even if “the office” may temporarily double as the kitchen table!
Amid this highly sensitive environment, leaders must ensure they are remaining constantly empathetic and sensitive—finding new ways to both engage with and support their employees, customers and clients. HP’s CEO Enrique Lores summarized this perfectly in a recent Fortune interview, “As leaders, we…all have learned how important it is to lead with empathy and build a different level of trust with our employees.”
A great example of this empathy-led reinvention can be seen with Ernst & Young, which has—in the wake of the pandemic—begun offering 24/7 resources to employees set to help build emotional resilience and improve sleeping habits, as well as offering one-on-one counseling with clinicians and daily group counseling sessions for parents, adult caregivers and people caring for family members with disabilities.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict what life is going to look like over the next several months—and as we head into the November election, it’s hard to imagine tensions will do anything but grow. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this global health crisis, it’s the power of leadership in the face of uncertainty—and in the end, being a strong, visible, and—above all—empathetic leader can serve as your north star through just about anything.
Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.