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COVID-19 and Beyond: Supporting Your Staff in Times of Stress and Transition

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Before my mother and I were discharged from the maternity ward at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital in June 1974, my mother- Patricia Ann walked me over to the window and vowed to never let the fact that she was a single mother hinder her from providing me with all of the experiences and opportunities any child from a two parent family had. Overlooking downtown Chicago, she made a promise to me that what I saw was mine, and as long as I was willing to work for it, she would always stand by me, be supportive, and love me through anything. In spite of the tremendous stress she was feeling transitioning from being single to becoming a single parent in the early 1970s, through this exchange she began teaching me four critical lessons for leaders. These lessons would form the basis for my own expertise in the area of leadership development. Furthermore, these are actually areas that leaders should use to support their staff during times of stress and transition, such as the current COVID-19 crisis. These areas are: Psychological Safety, Effective Communication, Productivity, and Emotional intelligence.

Psychological safety. Maintaining an atmosphere of psychological safety in the workplace is important during times of transitional crisis. However, the ability of leaders to provide psychological safety in times of transitional crisis can also be compromised as result of unmanaged stress. When leaders do not manage their stress well and resort to panic and negativity, team members do not feel safe to contribute, suggest ideas, report errors, and communicate with each other. Leaders who are not able to effectively manage their stress in times of crisis could inadvertently spread a workplace climate that is perceived to be unsafe and precarious.     

Being able to encourage psychological safety in a company during a crisis entails having a leader who has the ability to remain calm despite experiencing stress. Psychological safety can be an important organizational resource that can offset the stress of employees in the workplace. It is, therefore, important for leaders to strive to create a sense of psychological safety in the workplace by being encouraging and by being a role model of calmness under pressure. Some of the strategies that leaders can use to encourage psychological safety in the workplace include avoiding blaming others, being open to the feedback of employees, championing your team’s strengths and successes, and avoiding negativity that creates a climate that is unproductive.

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 Effective communication. The ability to communicate effectively is one of the indicators of effective leadership. When leaders are faced with a crisis, stress can negatively influence their ability to effectively communicate with their team members. Stress can lead to miscommunication, disorganization, and heightened tension in workplace relationships. Because of unmanaged stress, leaders may not be able to communicate well what is needed to be accomplished, resulting in unsatisfactory performances from the members of the team. 

Even though we are all susceptible to experiencing overwhelming stress from time to time, our ability to manage our emotions so that we do not make bad decisions is ultimately the more important consideration. Leaders must be mindful of how they communicate with their team members when they are stressed because these behaviors are easily modeled and absorbed by others. When the stress of the leader is absorbed in the workplace, the leader becomes the source of stress for everybody. Therefore, it is a vital skill that leaders are in touch with their emotions and have the keen awareness of how these negative energies might affect other people in the workplace. Leading with effective communication also entails being able to communicate face-to-face when necessary, integrate both verbal and nonverbal communication, provide clear information, being able to ask questions and listen, and resolve conflicts with diplomacy.

Emotional intelligence. As a leader, emotional intelligence is particularly important in times of crisis in order to be attuned with the needs of not only others but also oneself. This leadership strength comes from being able to empathize with other people in such a way that leaders can be a source of support leading to better mental health, enhanced work engagement, higher job satisfaction, and improved perceptions of power in the workplace. These kinds of positive work outcomes are particularly needed in times of transitional crisis such as the current coronavirus pandemic.   

The problem is that the emotional intelligence of leaders can be compromised when stress is unchecked or unmanaged during times of crisis. Even emotionally intelligent people can sometimes succumb to overwhelming stress particularly during times of crises. Sometimes ignored in favor of other-centered approaches to leadership, self-directed leadership emphasizes the role of self in leadership. Self-leadership is important in order to ensure that our presence as leaders do not contribute to more stress in the workplace. Our best evidence of our effectiveness as leaders is ourselves, which means that we lead by example.

Self-leadership is therefore crucial in having the awareness of mind and the discipline to enact actions that self-correct unproductive behaviors. Emotional intelligence among leaders is needed more than ever in these precarious situations because employees need the empathy and support to cope with difficult times. Leading with emotional intelligence entails being able to communicate their vision to others, respond in ways that are appropriate despite stressful situations, and make the extra effort to manage the negative emotions of their employees.   

Productivity. Leaders have the unique role in an organization in influencing the productivity of employees; however, this ability can be compromised if stress is not successfully addressed. Moderate levels of stress are sometimes considered a good motivation to excel; however, persistent high levels of stress can be detrimental to the overall performance of a company. Stress can also affect the productivity of leaders, which in turn affects the productivity of their team and the company. When leaders are stressed and they do not do anything to manage these negative emotions, they are more likely to make bad decisions that could compromise the productivity of a company.    

Even though the current job market is temporarily at a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic, productivity should remain a goal for those companies who are able to remain operational. Making the most out of an unfortunate situation also means that everybody’s efforts are not wasted. Leaders who are able to flourish in times of stressful situations can remain productive by remaining attune with the needs of employees. In times of stressful situations, leaders should be able to have the initiative to implement practices that would encourage productivity such as regularly checking in with employees, holding regular meetings, or providing feedback.  

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Stress is a common experience during times of transitions such as the current coronavirus pandemic. However, it is our reactions to these stressors that ultimately determines whether we rise above these situations and remain effective as leaders. The expectations for leaders to remain exemplary in times of stressful events are common because employees need guidance the most when things are not doing well. Leaders are most needed in these stressful crises, underscoring the importance of being able to flourish in these extraordinarily difficult situations.   

As leaders, we have the responsibility to lead both ourselves and the other people who rely on us for guidance and support. Depending on how leaders react from stressful situations, leaders can be the source of stress or the relief from stress in the workplace. Stress in the workplace has implications in different aspects of performance and organizational climate such as: psychological safety, communication effectiveness, emotional intelligence, and productivity. The ability of leaders to handle personal stress effectively particularly during times of transitional crises ultimately sets the tone for the entire workplace.       

To inquire about customized tips for your organization, please contact me at [email protected].


Dr. Angela L. Swain is a business psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and author. As an expert in organizational behavior she believes in creating positive workplace cultures through leadership development professionally and personally. Dr. Swain served as a researcher and moderator for The Emotional Intelligence

Leadership Institute in Chicago where she conducted training programs for managers to discuss team membership, meaning, and empowerment. Currently, she is Senior Consultant with Open Door Advisors, Inc., an organizational development consulting firm serving social enterprise leaders and consultant and coach for Catholic Theological Union, a seminary for both lay and religious leaders. 

She is the author of “The Relationship Between Managers’ Emotional Intelligence, Positive and Negative Affect, and Employee Voice” and “Aligning Incentives” in Epic Leadership Failures at Work (forthcoming). Dr. Swain is a graduate of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (Ph.D.), St. Xavier University (M.BA.), The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (M.S.W.), and Catholic Theological Union (M.Div.)