Helping Employees Cope with the Invisible Stress of COVID-19

Lockdown outside of China and other Asian countries started about five months ago. By now, most of us have adapted to the new normal. 

In the beginning, the struggle was getting used to not being able to go out freely, feeling connected to your social network virtually, and handling the anxiety that came with this new way of living and working. We checked the stats on new cases and fatality rates. We tried to figure out if or what we should stock up on. Gradually, we stopped looking at the numbers several times a day, and then we stopped checking the numbers at all. 

We realized along the way that the pandemic evolution is not changing that fast, there is no quick cure, vaccines will not be developed in a few months no matter how much we want them. We started to ask ourselves: what does this all mean, what the immediate future might look like, and what should we do? While we have stopped religiously tracking every COVID-19 development, the stress of the situation hasn’t gone away. 

How should leadership manage this?

Be Aware of Invisible Stress

When lockdowns first started, the government and our employers made decisions for us. We had visible stress triggered by things done to us. It was really obvious we could all talk about it and share the commonality of our experiences. 

As places contemplate opening up at various speeds, no one is telling us exactly what to do. We each have to make our own decisions, weighing different options, each of which has different associated health and safety implications. This creates an enormous amount of invisible stress for everyone. And unlike at the beginning of lockdown, when we shared a lot of common experiences, now the options and decisions are all very personal—should you send your kids back to school if the schools resume in-person classes? Do you dare make travel plans to fly to places you have always wanted to visit? When can you hold the wedding you planned? When is the right time to return to the office after the lockdown is lifted? 

Making sure we make the right personal and professional decision weighs heavily on all of us, creating different stress levels for each person. 

I did not realize this at first, at least until the leaders in our company shared how they were doing during a check-in with our executive coach at the beginning of our regular team-building session. Every leader talked about the stress they are experiencing, not triggered by any particular event, but simply as a result of the new way of life. It made me aware of this invisible stress we are all now feeling. 

There is no playbook for how to live in this new normal. As leaders, while we cannot provide answers to all the questions, raising awareness with our people can help alleviate some of this stress. I started to bring up the concept of this invisible stress during my 1:1s, company check-in calls, and other communications I have with people. I would ask people if they feel this invisible stress. 

By bringing this up as a topic and making it okay to talk about, I found that it helps people first recognize this stress and figure out how to deal with it. While there is a limited amount that leadership can actually do to address the issues associated COVID-19, just letting employees know that we are aware of the pressure they are under can go a long way.

Know What’s Important When Making Decisions

Normally, having options is a good thing. It is invigorating and energizing, and it makes us happy. However, in the age of COVID-19, options create stress and anxiety because the consequence of a bad decision can be the livelihood, health and safety of our family and employees.

How should we make decisions in this new normal? As when making any tough decisions, it is important to step back and first think about what is important to us. At OffSec, our leadership team made sure to define our priorities:

  • The safety of our employees, first and foremost.
  • The wellbeing of our employees, including their mental health.
  • Serving our students as best we can despite Coronavirus.

Prioritizing these important factors helped guide our decision-making process, and will guide us as we continue to make decisions each day under this new normal. For example:

We decided to pull out of the live training at Blackhat in Las Vegas, an event we had attended since the company’s founding. We made this decision before Blackhat decided to make this a virtual event. Our employees were wondering how we would make this decision; some were willing to travel and some were not. Once we agreed what was the most important factor to consider, it was an easy and unanimous decision among our leadership team.

We implemented a monthly social calendar with various activities throughout the month during ‘working hours,’ such as weekly workouts and yoga sessions with our own certified trainer; movie days; happy hours. We are experimenting with a buddy system that randomly pairs two employees together for more frequent one-on-one check-ins. These activities are aimed at helping our people manage their mental stress and improve their overall wellbeing.

With various places starting to open up, how should we decide? While OffSec is a primarily remote company, we do have some offices. Is it safe to return to the office? Should we do it gradually? Should we wait until later? We are in the process of making such decisions, and we will rely on the important factors listed above. We ask our people what they prefer. We are confident that this process will lead to the right decision for our people.

As I lay out these beliefs, calm and clarity emerge. It helps me see more clearly how to make decisions for my personal life and for OffSec. Personally, I will try hard not to plan any air travel, or go to events that involve large gatherings such as large conferences. I will continue to practice good hygiene, wearing a mask and washing my hands. I will continue to go outside for walks and exercise as that keeps me fit physically and mentally. I will seek opportunities to experience the old normal as much as possible, such as gardening. 

For OffSec, as I look out to the next 12 months, I am contemplating the possibility that there won’t be in-person team meetings of any size. We may not return to our offices even long after the government allows us to. If our people are safe and healthy, and our students are well taken care of with our services and new products, that is how success will be defined and measured. 

Ning Wang is CEO of Offensive Security.

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