Healthy Organizational Responses to the Coronavirus Pandemic

Graham Lowe’s latest book, Creating Healthy Organizations, makes a compelling case for resilient and humanly sustainable businesses by focusing on improving employees’ well-being. This advice is just as prevalent to organizations today, as employees are forced into working from home, and where the lines between work and home and family life have dissolved. Graham Lowe writes in this post about why following the principles of a healthy organization can be helpful.


I begin the revised and expanded edition of my book, Creating Healthy Organizations: Taking Action to Improve Employee Well-Being with a basic question: how can we make organizations humanly sustainable so they can succeed in the future? This question takes on new urgency now that we’ve been blind-sided by a global pandemic. Human resource, workplace wellness, and occupational health and safety professionals are confronting what surely will be the greatest test of their career. Following the principles of a healthy organization can be helpful.

Pervasive Public Pessimism

First, here’s the backdrop to what’s happening to workers and employers. Unlike the 2008-2009 financial crisis and Great Recession, which resulted from weaknesses in the financial system, the coronavirus pandemic generates anxiety and fear on two fronts: health and economic.

Evidence of this comes from EKOS Research Associates’ latest polling of Canadians (March 17-24, n=1,710, MOE +/- 2.4%, 19 times out of 20). Three quarters of those surveyed believe the economy is already in recession and expect it to get worse in the next 6 months. Just over half think they will be worse off financially in 6 months. The typical respondent sees a 50% chance of them personally being infected by the coronavirus. Most (80%) are experiencing stress due to the pandemic. On an optimistic note, Canadians do grasp the severity of the crisis and understand what they need to do to stay safe. And they endorse governments’ responses so far.

Shifting Healthy Practices into High Gear

Pre-pandemic, organizations in all industries operated in an environment rife with ever-greater risks and uncertainties, and sweeping transformations. More employers recognize that survival depends on getting the fullest commitment and energy from each and every employee. The goal of making the entire organization healthier moved into the mainstream of corporate wellness. Companies are striving to make workplaces psychologically healthier and safer. Expanded corporate sustainability frameworks have opened up discussions about the sustainability of a company’s human resource practices.

This solid progress – coupled with strong economies in Canada and the US leading up to the pandemic – will enable many of us to weather the storm.

Cultivating Resilience

Healthy organizations cultivate workforce resilience. Resilient people don’t bounce back; they bounce forward, finding new strength and equilibrium. They move to a new normal that enables them to keep progressing toward a better future. Resilient people don’t just adapt to change, they find opportunities and renewed strength as they confront it. In the language of positive psychology, the goal is to help organizations and their members flourish and thrive.

Workers need a supportive environment to be resilient. To do this, leaders must develop their own resilience. Resilient leaders skillfully and proactively respond to stressors, practice self-care, learn from failure, develop renewed strengths, and show others how it is possible to thrive when the going gets tough. In this way, they foster a resilient workforce that is prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Individual and team resilience is a hallmark of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace highlights the key workplace features that contribute to resilience:

  1. Supportive managers and coworkers
  2. A culture that values individuals’ well-being
  3. Skilled people leadership
  4. Respectful working relationships
  5. Support for employees’ personal growth and development
  6. The resources needed to manage workloads and job demands
  7. Employee involvement in decisions
  8. Recognition for contributions
  9. The flexibility needed to achieve work–life balance

Maintaining, and even strengthening, the above workplace features must be a priority. Building a healthy organization is a shared responsibility. While demonstrated support from senior leaders is a key enabling condition for change, equally important is the active participation of all the organization’s members, right down to the front lines. Ideally, all employees should feel motivated and encouraged to find ways to make their jobs and work environment healthier and safer. Now the bar is raised, because this has to happen virtually.

Lessons from Recessions Past

The change process can be designed to be healthy. We can derive lessons from research on corporate downsizing and restructuring during the recessions of the ‘80s, 90s and 2000s. Here’s what’s well documented: 1) downsizing increases stress and diminishes the health of those laid off and the ‘survivors’ (who suffer from what’s called ‘survivor syndrome’); 2) poorly executed downsizing or restructuring reduces an organizational capabilities, ranging from learning, reduced tacit knowledge, social capital (relationships), collaboration, and innovation.

Survivor syndrome (the negative psychological and physical impact of remaining in a downsized organization, including guilt) can be avoided by empowering workers to redesign work tasks and processes to fit the renewed mission, responding to issues and concerns raised by employees, and supporting employees to individually and as teams actively manage the changes.

During the 2008-2009 Great Recession, some companies came out stronger because they used the downturn as an opportunity to engage all employees to reinvent the business strategy and find better ways of working. Leaders in these organizations built trust by openly communicating with employees, involving them in the changes, and supporting them at every step of the way. The big take-away for employees: this company cares about me so I am committed to its future success.

Signs of Mutual Support

As the Economist recently observed: “Downturns are capitalism’s sorting mechanism, revealing weak business models and stretched balance-sheets.” But there’s more to the survival story. Beyond balance sheets and the type of business (pity the cruise lines), it comes down to people practices, reinforced by shared corporate values. Values are the essential guideposts when the going gets tough. And rarely has it been tougher.

Small businesses face more acute challenges. But from what I’ve seen locally, owners may be more inclined to treat their workers like family, knowing they will need them back as the pandemic threat recedes.

I see signs of this today in my own community. A restaurant quickly shifted to a reduced take out menu, turning waiters in to delivery drivers, and offering customers the option of buying an inexpensive meal for a family in need. Gyms offer free daily on-line workouts. Musicians stream live performances. A craft distillery now is producing hand sanitizer. My friend Todd Ramsay and his wife Ashley, who run Kelowna-based Yeti Farm Creative, an animation studio, proactively set up their employees to work at home in early March. Their team feels virtually connected (pictured above) and are committed to coming out of this ordeal even stronger. The common theme here is people pulling together and helping each other. And just as with fires, floods and other natural disasters, people are engaging in acts of kindness. Local TV news images of empty foodbank hampers quickly resulted in a $10,000 donation, plus lots of smaller ones.

Work and social life have been transformed in a matter of weeks into virtual experiences. Video chat service Zoom has, well, zoomed into widespread use. The lines between work and home and family life have dissolved. What about those workers faced with school closures and kids at home needing constructive activities? It’s time for your team to talk about what adaptations are needed to support these members.

Let’s Not Forget…

There are other groups of workers who desperately need help. Foremost are front-line healthcare workers. We’ve seen shocking videos of doctors and nurses working around the clock in Spain and Italy, risking their safety, tending to patients lying in hallway floors without proper equipment. How can we prevent that scenario from happening here? And as a New York Times editorial put it yesterday: “In this hour of crisis, those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are in the greatest need of help.” This includes low-paid workers and those in the gig economy. There’s an essential role for governments here.

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic will end. The Chinese city of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus, has reduced the number of new infections to the point that people are returning to work and some semblance of normal daily life. All the more important to ensure that today’s responses to the pandemic will ready us to resume our social and economic lives. So think of where you want to be one year from now.


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