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Workplace Fear Can Spread Like the Coronavirus

What organizational leaders can do to help their employees during this stressful time

So – the coronavirus has now hit US soil, and in light of the fatalities seen in other nations, people are very afraid. Although there were early signs that this virus could spread quickly, after the death toll in China, then the spread of the virus to South Korea, Iran, and Italy, many people in the US still seem shocked that it is now here. Wasn’t the US immune from such crises? This shock has quickly turned into anxiety, which is now permeating workplaces and creating a climate of fear.

As a professor who has studied emotions in the workplace for over two decades, I am always observing how employees are responding to emotionally charged situations. Employees not only respond negatively to abusive bosses, rude coworkers and customers, unfair policies, heavy workloads, sexual harassment, and nepotism, but they are responding to affectively charged events outside of the organization too. There is a constant emotional spillover from work to home, and from home to work. Managers need to be aware of this spillover effect and understand how it influences employee performance.

At water coolers in workplaces around the US, the coronavirus seems to be all that employees are talking about these days. Employee sideline conversations used to be about politics, sports, or a new restaurant, but now it is about number of deaths, virus mortality rates, the cost of medical testing, the fall of financial markets, vaccines, cancelled travel plans, and the ‘run’ on supplies of face masks and hand sanitizer. With each new piece of information about the current public health emergency – accurate or inaccurate – the fear amongst employees grows.

This is how a climate of fear develops within workplaces. All it takes is one extremely nervous employee to spread their fear to others. It is natural for employees to share their emotions with others at work, especially in the case of negative emotions where people may be seeking emotional support and reassurance. Sharing emotions with others reinforces bonds between individuals and can help develop strong relationships. However, in the case of spreading negative emotions such as fear, the outcomes may not be positive in workplaces.

Although I study emotions, I am not immune to catching the fear currently permeating our workplaces. Recently, my work colleague and I went to lunch. As we walked out of the office, I noticed he did not touch the door handle and he used a pen to select the ground floor button in the elevator. He told me about his facemasks, hand sanitizer, and plans to work from home to avoid catching the virus. This made me realize my own lack of preparation and heightened my sense of doom.

What can our organizational leaders do to help their employees in this fearful climate? Any CEO or line manager displaying anxiety will have a greater effect on emotional contagion than a regular employee will. This is because they are role models who shape the mindsets of their employees through their words and actions. Right now, we need calm and supportive leaders who can provide guidance and reassurance through this crisis.

The coronavirus will likely continue to be a source of great uncertainty over the coming weeks, and possibly months. We do not know what will happen next – if there will be a new vaccine developed, if warmer weather will slow down the spread of the virus, or if it will continue to spread and people continue to die. The longer the uncertainty, the greater the fear. Emotionally intelligent managers will be aware of their employees’ emotions, identify those individuals who are not coping well, and help reduce anxiety levels.

While, for most people, the infection may be relatively minor and the majority of them will recover, it will still affect many individual employees in organizations. This is because scientific consensus suggests the most important part of preventing the spread of this particular virus is containing it, so that it will not spread to those who are most vulnerable. To do this, it may mean staying at home, not gathering together with others, and reducing travel.

Diligent managers are now planning around the possibility of their employees working from home. Managers will need to use their emotional intelligence to be mindful of the emotional impact that these measures can have on their employees. According to the 2019 State of Remote Work report, 22 percent of remote workers have trouble unplugging from work, 19 percent of remote workers suffer from loneliness, and 17 percent have trouble collaborating and communicating. Managers need to think about how they can stay connected to their employees to offer support during this time of high anxiety.

This virus is moving quickly, and organizations need to start preparing now. Fear at work may be even more contagious than the coronavirus.

Marie T. Dasborough, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at the University of Miami and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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