Fostering Corporate Resiliency By Mitigating Social Stigma

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As we get used to this “new normal” of work and life in the time of a global pandemic, much is outside of our control. Individually and collectively, we are adapting to unprecedented measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. We all want to protect the vulnerable in our communities, and to support our healthcare professionals and other essential workers.  Social distancing, shelter-in-place, the abrupt immersion into working from home are overwhelming tasks to navigate logistically and mentally. Many of us have significant new responsibilities, such as homeschooling our children or interpreting constantly updated public health guidelines. Compounding this stress, many of us are concerned about “at risk” family members and friends, our own health, and the well-being of our colleagues and clients.

We are collectively experiencing this adversity. We are working together to face this challenge and persevere. Yet, each of our experiences is unique.  It is important that, as leaders, we are mindful of the individual challenges that so many are facing. Particularly, it is important to highlight colleagues who are undeserving recipients of elevated social stigmas associated with COVID-19. By stigma, I refer to negative and unfair beliefs associated with a particular group(s). Stigma leads to discrimination, in the form of prejudicial treatment that can result in an adverse employment action by influencing work practices such as hiring, promotions, rewards, job assignments, training, or layoffs.  Stigma also fuels demoralizing microaggressions, “comments or actions that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude” (Merriam Webster), towards a particular group(s).

During times of crisis, fear and lack of accurate information stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments, giving rise to these social stigmas. Across the country, and around the globe, reports are escalating of bullying and harassment towards demographics associated with COVID-19, Asians, Asian-Americans, older adults as well as individuals who have recently traveled to high-risk regions.  These stigmatized individuals are impacted mentally and emotionally by these discriminatory behaviors. Their job or career opportunities often suffer as a result. As articulated in the CDC’s Coronavirus Guidelines, these stigmatized individuals are also “subjected to: social avoidance or rejection; denials of healthcare, education, housing or employment; and, physical violence.”

Leadership teams strive to foster cultures of inclusion and resiliency within their organizations and teams - resilience that is so desperately needed during these times of crisis. Social stigmas and discrimination undermine these critical inclusion and resiliency efforts.  Therefore, it is imperative for leadership teams to proactively identify and mitigate any such stigma within an organization as a top business priority. Per the Center for Positive Organizations, “In the midst of a crisis, individuals and organizations need to constantly adapt to unforeseen scenarios. …Resilience emerges not only within individuals, but among groups of people. While some groups may try to look away from the adversity, resilient individuals and organizations face it, find meaning, and act with purpose to move forward.” 

To cultivate inclusion, foster resiliency and mitigate social stigmas within your organization, Dana Sumpter, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Management & Human Resource Management at the College of Business at California State University Long Beach) shares several suggested actions & initiatives:

  1. Model Informed Engagement. Help people remain calm, stay informed and avoid overwhelmed or panicked reactions. It is easy to be swayed by rapidly spreading stories and misinformed social media posts. Leaders can help to share credible sources and regularly provide updates to your team, which can help reduce unnecessary anxiety. It is natural to react emotionally during times of stress and uncertainty. As a manager and leader, you need to be their rock, you need to model appropriate behavior, and you need to be a source of strength and support. Be their calm in the storm.

  2. Management of Stigmas. Remain aware of the current prevalence of stigmas of particular employee groups, and identify how this could impact your workforce. Set the example by actively managing this threat, through acknowledging its existence and championing allyship. Proactively, you can include discussions of this discrimination and be explicit about work behavior expectations during staff meetings. Reinforcing the culture with comments such as “Here at (company), we do not treat people differently based on race or country of origin” may help. Let’s say you witness inappropriate taunting or remarks.  You may want to physically stand between the individuals; you may help to distract the harasser so the target individual can leave the room; you may speak up, saying something like “That’s not funny, and that is not how the virus actually works.” These types of actions and reactions can help to provide crucial support to those who experience discrimination. Doing so also nurtures your workplace culture during a time of uncertainty and stress. Be sure to also maintain confidentiality of people with confirmed COVID-19, and remember that employers should not ask if employees have Covid19, which could violate a worker’s rights.

  3. Promote Employee Well-being. Are your employees taking care of themselves and their health, such as getting enough sleep, maintaining good nutrition and being physically active? Such lifestyle considerations are more important now than ever, as they can help to bolster immune systems and mental well-being. This may also be where leaders can “walk the talk”, by vocally talking about their self-care strategies and encouraging others to follow suit with their own. Work/life balance considerations, such as not expecting employees to be available during off-work hours, should be prioritized. Some employees may be faced with loss, such as the illness or death of a loved one. Others may have mental health struggles that are accentuated by the isolation of stay-at-home orders. Leaders can provide resources such as employee assistance programs and other social and behavioral services. Sharing resources such as the CDC’s information about mental health and coping can help. Employers will do well to prioritize the holistic well-being of their employees’ lives, to the extent possible, during this time.

Professor Sumpter recommends the CDC (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus) and local city and county health departments as reliable sources of information for actual illness severity, risk of impact and behavioral guidelines. The CDC also provides suggested tips to mitigate stigma associated with COVID-19, including:

  1. Speak out against negative behaviors, including negative statements on social media about groups of people, or exclusion of people who pose no risk.

  2. Be cautious about the images that are shared. Make sure they do not reinforce stereotypes.

  3. Engage with individuals of stigmatized groups in person if possible (mindful of social distancing) and through media channels, including social media.

While there is much outside of our control during this global pandemic, we retain control of our actions, our reactions and our intentions. We can seize this moment to be the leaders that will help to support and inspire people, setting the standards for behavior that will shape our organizations’ cultures in the years to come. Together, we can mitigate the social stigmas arising from COVID-19 and foster our collective resiliency.

 

REFERENCES

    

Megan Stewart Hodge

Megan is an executive, public speaker and advocate for diversity & inclusion. She strives for whole-person success in her interwoven career and personal journey, prioritizing authenticity in life and as a leader in the insurance industry. Megan has cultivated her expertise as a leader throughout her career with a strong focus on: operational strategy, innovation, fostering talent & inclusive culture development and consummate client advisory.  Megan is the founder of Cultiver LLC (an advisory practice focused on fostering cultures of inclusion) and the author of Voix.

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