READ MORE: Workers are in a heightened state of alert. Here’s how leaders can help them through it. (Protocol)
Having trouble concentrating at work? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has many of us “doomscrolling” even though we know it deepens depression and anxiety. But companies can do more to help their staff cope with these existential threats, according to David Rock, co-founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute.
Rock has been working in cognitive leadership consulting for 25 years, and has helped Netflix, Microsoft and Zoom — to name a few — address their people practices from a neuroscience perspective.
Rock spoke with Protocol about how prolonged stress and trauma affect employees, and what companies can do to best support their global workforce during this time.
“We have a heightened alert state about events in the world and we’re starting to advise companies on how to think about this,” he says.
Rock thinks of the impact on our mental health in terms of levels of threat.
“The brain is built to keep us alive, fundamentally,” he explains, “And the way it does that is avoiding dangers and maximizing opportunities. But first and foremost, we avoid dangers. And the way we assess dangers is actually in three broad categories.”
The first level of threat that you detect is essentially kind of feeling alert but not alarmed. “It’s like the equivalent of having two or three coffees and focusing a lot. You are being productive, but you’re not very creative.”
This could just as easily be triggered by your line manager issuing a new deadline or sales target as something like an external news event.
The threat level rises when your brain detects a potential real problem on the horizon, and essentially prepares you for something really bad.
“Level Two threat response is really poor for all kinds of cognitive processing. That’s the feeling of being frazzled, of not being able to focus. You’re not running screaming down the hallway, but you seem to keep reading the same email over and over. That’s the state a lot of the world is in right now.”
Rock has some advice for employers. One idea is to bring people together under common goals. “If your company is able to help with the crisis in Ukraine, for example, you might find that people rallying to do something productive could really help everyone. People want to feel like there’s something they can do. If this thing continues, there’s going to be increasing upward pressure from employees for companies to act in every way they can.”
In addition, talking about issue can help. This is like the sorts of good management that was practiced under Covid when teams were distributed at home. Connecting with people offsets the feeling of threat, Rock says.
“This is a great time to increase the all-hands meetings where everyone’s on camera, and it’s a great time to increase your check-ins with people: your team meetings, your one-on-ones. Some people will find this time very, very difficult so I wouldn’t assume everyone’s just sailing through all this uncertainty. A number of people will be really struggling.”