Disruption to the Employee Experience – We need a vaccine for fear!


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Let’s go back three months and look in detail at the world of work.
Many countries across the world have a high unemployment rate, as well as low productivity numbers among the people who are employed. We also have dangerously low levels of staff engagement and satisfaction across industries.

Below the surface, we are dealing with health issues like HIV, mental health challenges like depression, substance abuse as a coping mechanism, and domestic violence and conflict. For some the workplace is a safe haven, for some a hiding place from conflict and danger. For some it’s a place where they matter, for some it’s a place where they drown themselves in numbing volumes of work so they can be the victim of intellectual perpetrators for a change.

Many corporates report that culture is having an impact on their productivity, well-being and brand image. Many struggle to fix this. Leaders tell us they struggle to lead, most having been promoted from a specialist position, never having learnt the skills to lead individuals, let alone large groups of people, and are yearning for someone to save them from their challenges.

Certainly a system that is not finding itself in good health.

Then comes the big lockdown and most companies send home people who are able to work remotely, with essential workers with no other option remaining at the workplace under strict social distancing guidelines. For the purposes of this article, we are not going to discuss medical professionals but largely focus on corporate services.

What companies did

So for a start, there were a few things for the companies to solve for their employees:
Unblocking of all apps and protocols
A space at home to work (well, that one the employee had to figure out).

That is a win from the employees’ side, as they have overcome technology challenges that have for years prevented them from having some flexibility. Excuse my sarcasm.

What the employees have to do

From the employees’ side, it is not that simple.
They have to actively manage a household, with help from a spouse at times. Between cleaning, looking after the dogs, going out for essentials, they are also experiencing a blending of all the roles into one. And no-one is really being acclaimed Mom of the Month or Wife of the Month.
Kids are home-schooled using mainly WhatsApp, and up to 180 messages about work a single child needs to do, plus exchanges and comments between parents, are sent daily. Some documents are attached to the WhatsApp message and many parents don’t have a printer at home. Due to the constraints of limited devices parents often need to give up theirs or share a device between family members. Teachers prepare lessons on YouTube and post links, and between work and Zoom meetings kids are using the same Wi-Fi or mobile hotspot to watch a video. Shoved into a corner with a bookcase behind her, our employee is too ashamed to show the state of her house, so she leaves her camera off. We as Brandlove have been fortunate to have had workshops globally for the past three months and have found that less than 10% of people switch on their cameras.

Why do people keep their cameras off?

They feel they don’t look good.
It freaks them out to stare at themselves.
They remain ungroomed daily and stay in their pajamas, so they really do not look good.
Their environment does not look good.
They feel ashamed for many reasons ̶ they may not be as productive as they need to be.
They are not technology savvy enough to get their camera working.
Their camera is broken.
They have kids and pets running in the background and don’t want people to see them.

There are many, many reasons, but I believe the biggest is how we feel about ourselves when we see ourselves on camera. We have never seen as much of ourselves as in the past three months. On a normal day, I rarely look in the mirror, and now I stare at a picture of myself for most of the day. I hear myself more clearly and I judge myself more fiercely. These are trying times even for people with healthy self-images.

Organisational challenges before Covid-19

Before Covid-19 many teams in large corporate environments were already dealing with challenges they shared with us.

My leader does not lead us, he governs us.
We work in silos.
The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
We don’t communicate openly, we hear things via the grapevine.
We don’t believe our leaders are transparent, we just wait for the next bad thing to happen.
People don’t really care about the employees at the bottom, we are just a number.
We don’t speak up for fear of getting fired or not getting our contracts renewed.
People are not interested in our ideas.
We don’t have the right tools to do our job.
Our company does not have the budget for training.
Our company does not provide a progression path for senior positions, they appoint from the outside.
We are paid poorly.
We don’t feel appreciated.
I feel like an imposter.
I fear my job will become irrelevant.

If we look at these challenges now, they have become exaggerated.

If we look at the most important ingredients for a functional workplace, they would be:
Strong leadership and a common goal
Open communication
Regular reviews
Contracting expectations
Teamwork towards a common goal.

If these aspects were not in place or already under strain, it is going to get even more difficult.

Employee scenarios during Covid-19

So let’s paint a few scenarios,
Let’s say Jane would have described her company culture as an unhealthy, toxic culture that does not bring out the best in her. She stays because she feels she does not have other options. Jane is now working from home.

Here are a few scenarios of how she is adapting:

Goody two shoes

Jane is loving the quiet space at home away from the toxic culture at the workplace. She dials into meetings. She sends emails to her colleagues and gets her work done on time. She juggles home responsibilities but she finds a rhythm that works for the household. She creates a small corner in her bedroom that is her workspace and she shuts the door when she needs to participate in meetings. She’s hung up a curtain her grandma made so her background can look like a studio when she is on Zoom calls with clients.

Smooth operator

Jane just does enough not to get into trouble. They are not monitoring when she clocks in an out. She logs on to Zoom and mutes her side, helps the kids and continues with the home responsibilities. She can multitask. She cannot be fired during a pandemic. She was not appreciated while she was at work.


Then there is the version of Jane that is very uncertain, that really needs guidance as to what to do and what she is responsible for, but she is too afraid to ask in case her manager reprimands her or calls her high maintenance. She checks in with her team mates on WhatsApp to check with them what should be done, but they themselves are unsure.

The envy of the returning ones

Then there is another version of Jane looking at people returning to the office and wishing she would rather be at the office. It is hard to work at home but when she returns to the office, who will look after the children while they cannot go to school and after-care? She might have to hire a carer, which will increase the risk of bringing the virus into the home.

The envy of the office bound

Then there is a version of Jane where she goes back to the office as part of skeleton staff, with most of her colleagues working from home. She has not been told why she was selected to work from the office. When she is at the office, she worries about getting sick, and worries about the children at home. She needs to take care of all her home responsibilities only when she gets home late.

The overloaded and ready to give up

There is also a version of Jane that has to contribute because her husband has lost his job. She cannot afford the home-schooling of the kids with data and devices. She fears her aging parents are not going to survive this and she is really battling with anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. She is in a state of paralysis and cannot really work. She is too afraid to speak up since she might lose her job as well.

We need a vaccine for fear

In all these scenarios, fear plays a massive role and really, what we should be looking for is a vaccine for fear while we are searching for one for Covid-19. Fear has always impacted our work life and decisions regarding our careers. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has bumped us all to the bottom and we are struggling to find our way up.

We are trapped in the drama triangle, desperately trying to find a hero or be a hero, while someone is stepping into the perpetrator position, blaming someone for some oversight, negligence, putting the country in lockdown, not putting the country in lockdown.

Meanwhile, most of us feel like we are the victims of a really small enemy we sneeze into the air, not really knowing how susceptible we are to it or if we will live to tell the story.

Companies are sending out newsletters with good intentions and making wellness and support programmes available to employees who may be struggling.

Never in a hundred years would I have believed you if you had told me this story a mere 3 months ago. Never in human existence have we been faced with such a collective challenge that communicates data at the speed it does and connects people globally on the scale it does now. It has accelerated many things, but what it has not done is allow us to evolve past our primal fear response.

I find myself angry, then sad, then I pick myself up and I become creative and motivated and then angry again. I believe a lot of people are experiencing these emotions right now in an attempt to process the discomfort of our primal fear response and lack of control and hope in this situation. This is exacerbated by what was underlying in many people.
Depressed people now become more depressed.
Angry people are angrier.
Sad people are sadder and maybe angrier.
Positive people get more positive, for a while.
Complainers keep on complaining.

In workshops we have conducted over the past two months with more than 200 participants from all over the globe, people report that the following is keeping them awake at night:

Fear of getting sick or immediate family getting sick
Fear of losing their jobs
Fear of financial ruin
Fear of loneliness
Fear of uncertainty and no end in sight.

What I am missing is skills to help us adapt. From a company perspective, the newsletters attempt to do that but most people tell us they don’t read, especially if it is a boring company newsletter.

People across the globe report having more vivid dreams than usual and psychologists speculate it is because we might be sleeping longer and this is our brain’s way of processing the information and emotions we are experiencing. There is even a research site dedicated to Covid-19 dreams where you can submit your dreams. My sentiments are that we are desperately trying to process what is happening to us collectively and make sense of what we are feeling.

The skills we need

Some of the skills and focus I believe employees and their families desperately need right now are:

Self-awareness ̶ How do I feel right now?
Acknowledge anxiety ̶ describe it and don’t see it as weakness.

Prioritisation ̶ What is important for me to focus on now?

Being able to prioritise what is really important and not, what I can control and what not.

Self-care ̶ What do I need right now?

Taking care of your body and spirit
Practise tolerating uncertainty
Resilience ̶ balancing how we overestimate the impact and underestimate our ability to deal with the situation.

Contribute ̶ Who needs my help (after I have put on my own oxygen mask)?
Helping someone else.

Connect ̶ With whom or what do I need connecting now?
Staying connected
Connect with your life purpose rather than focus on the fear of losing your life.

Practise a hobby
How to switch off and take a break through creativity.

These are not hard skills to practise but they require time and focus. We have been hosting an online laughter yoga group since the lockdown started and we have a few regulars but also new people joining all the time. They come and laugh with strangers, and yes sure, they think it’s weird. Even we who have been practising laughter yoga for five years, think it’s weird, but it’s healthy and it gives you a connection at a very different unconditional level. We laugh for no reason, unconditionally without anything being funny, and we feel better together in our loneliness and isolation.

Ponder on the questions I have given you above. If you are a leader, open your team meetings with these questions. If you forget everything I said, just focus on the connection piece and whether it is with family, colleagues, friends, just pause and make a true, warm connection.


Chantel Botha
I'm Chantel Botha, the author of "The Customer Journey Mapping Field Guide" and the founder of BrandLove. I help business leaders to empower their teams to live their brand proudly. I am passionate about closing the gap between what a brand promises and delivers in reality. Employees are often the moment of truth in customers' experiences with a brand. Over the last 15 years, I have perfected the recipe to turn ordinary employees into Brand Warriors.


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