Alongside the greatest global health challenge in over a century – brought about by COVID-19 and ensuing lockdowns – various protests were seen to mushroom around the world in 2020. 1 Among them, these protests demanded diversity, equity and inclusion, requiring affected organisations to engage with anxious employees on a range of complex and often extremely emotional issues. In South Africa, political protests took place between 9 – 17 July 2021, the knock-on effects of which will be felt for months and perhaps years to come, starting in KwaZulu-Natal and spilling over into Gauteng province. This protest was triggered in response to the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, and led to riots and extensive looting, fuelled by levels of unemployment and economic inequality, and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The common theme in such civil disruptions is that they relate to deeply held and potentially divisive personal beliefs. Organisational leaders cannot afford to tread cautiously in light of such issues potentially being conflict-ridden. In fact, when the potential for such tension creates fallout among co-workers, it is of utmost importance to be proactive, candid and authentic with your employees.
“The common theme in such civil disruptions is that they relate to deeply held and potentially divisive personal beliefs.”
To preserve employee wellbeing in times of civil disturbance or social unrest it is beneficial to support and protect employees against emotional and psychological distress by:
- managing negative emotions;
- establishing appropriate policies for personal political expression in the workplace;
- creating a safe internal space for open dialogue, and
- building an inclusive culture.
Help employees manage negative emotions
Employees can experience a range of negative emotions during and after civil disturbance including fear, anger, anxiety and devastation. Affected employees may turn to their managers for support, but many managers are not trained to handle these sorts of conversations, especially in today’s virtual, work-from-home environment.
Employees can experience a range of negative emotions during and after civil disturbance including fear, anger, anxiety and devastation.
Look to HR for resources that can be shared directly with employees – including being directed to an organisation’s EAP programme for counselling and onward referral if need be. Getting employees to contact employee wellness for emotional support allows them to get positive coping skills and have an objective yet supportive space to openly explore their feelings and come up with solutions on how best to cope personally. EAPA-SA President, Thiloshni Govender, offers this advice to employees: “I recommend limiting attention to media and propaganda material being circulated in social media – these tend to inflame existing fear, anxiety and tension. Employers should rather actively promote positive messaging and material promoting peace, unity and a safe workplace culture.”
Establish appropriate policies to regulate political expression in the workplace
Political expression in the workplace may cause employees to feel discomfort or discrimination because of their political views. This can contribute to a hostile workplace. A political expression policy can help organisations avoid a hostile workplace by providing guidelines about political expression that is acceptable in both the physical and virtual workplace. Elements of an effective political expression policy include:
“Political expression in the workplace may cause employees to feel discomfort or discrimination because of their political views.”
- Be specific, clear and concise: Specify goals along with prohibited activities, language and behaviours. Lay out what disciplinary action will be taken if the policy is broken.
- Align the policy to organisational culture and values: Align messaging in both internal and external communications to reinforce employees’ existing expectations and avoid confusion and conflict.
- Be reasonable: Give consideration to which forms of political expression are most likely to have the greatest impact on your workplace. Attempting to shut down all forms of political expression is unrealistic and may result in negative consequences.
- Communicate regularly: Regularly impart with employees what forms of political expression they may and may not engage in while at work and be clear about the consequences of unacceptable behaviour.
- Consistently enforce the policy: Train leaders and managers on what this policy means and how to introduce it to employees and manage adherence.
Create a safe space for productive and inclusive conversations
It can be difficult for an employee to know when and how to share their thoughts and feelings about potentially divisive civil disturbance – particularly when they believe such discussions may affect their standing at work.
- Have leadership set examples of respect and civility.
- Assist your employees by creating safe environments for productive conversations in which employees feel free to express themselves.
- Establish standards of communication, encouraging employees to focus on common goals. Productive conversations should have clearly defined session objectives, such as:
- Promoting greater understanding and connections across differences
- Sharing and learning from others’ experiences
- Developing an action plan to move forward
- Set explicit guidelines to facilitate the session, including:
- Impose no recordings or screenshots to ensure an exclusive and safe space.
- Mediate dialogue rather than debate.
- Listen and contribute respectfully; don’t interrupt.
- To balance formal conversations led by leadership, schedule informal, small-group conversations between individual employees or teams.
Building an inclusive culture
With the complex challenges that civil disturbance presents, it is more important than ever for employers to support their employees’ mental wellbeing through a positive, inclusive workplace culture. In an inclusive organisation, one sees diversity at every level within the institution. Many cultures, traditions, beliefs, languages, and lifestyles are represented in both the workforce as well as its customer populations, and are appreciated without judgment. In an inclusive culture employees are valued, encouraged and, most importantly, listened to. An employee with a different perspective on an issue or challenge will, thus, feel empowered to make their voice heard.
- Taking action to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about the current civil disturbance and its foundation in racial inequities is a start toward inclusion.
- At the same time that organisations are having such topical conversations and checking in with their minority / affected employees to better understand how they are feeling during this time, it is an ideal time for leaders to listen to the voices of their employees about their experiences the past eighteen months of enduring the COVID-19 pandemic.
- And, going deeper, it is an ideal time to listen and understand the feelings and experiences of those who have been historically marginalised, and follow through with intentional action.
Supporting management as they provide support to employees during civil disturbance
Managers are essential to showing authentic care and support of the “whole employee” – with whole-person-wellbeing embracing the support of employees while they are at work and also in their life outside of work. Various research has found that employees believe that their immediate manager is the most important go-to person for their wellbeing-support.
Here are three ways in which managers can, themselves, be supported by an organisation as they, in turn, provide support to employees withstanding civil disturbance:
- Pre-prepare by providing the right upfront training and resources
Provide training in team-focused skills, developing the ability of managers to communicate with, motivate and support small groups as well as individual employees. Also, ensure that your managers and team leaders have access to the right systems and equipment to allow them to not only do their job well during a time of stability, but also to maintain their role in times of disruption.
- During the disturbance, provide the tools to action and monitor instructions
During a time of disturbance, it can be difficult to interpret and track quick-action, crisis-based instructions as they need to be passed down from CEO to managers to employees. Support managers in clarifying and implementing immediate-action expectations by providing a command-central digital project management platform to keep track of necessary actions and conversations on a wholesale basis. This will also prove beneficial as a management team mutual-support mechanism.
- In the long-term, offer managers self-care opportunities.
Employees need ongoing, holistic support, which escalates in times of disturbance. To avoid burnout, managers need to care for themselves first so that they can, in turn, care for employees to the best of their ability. It is important for organisations to invest in an intentional culture of manager-support that strongly encourages and enables manager self-care. Through leading by example, this will instil a culture of self-care in employees.