As Covid’s dizzying spin starts to slow, leaders are steeling themselves for the long road to recovery. An essential early step will be effectively addressing the anxieties of millions of workers who are worried about the future of their work and their health. Given the pain of this moment, there are plenty of “tips,” urging leaders to handle the journey’s challenges with resilience, authenticity, and connection. While these things have tremendous value in stabilizing human behavior at an emotionally volatile time, they are not enough.
If leaders want to use this moment to do more than return worried, distracted employees to old jobs they once knew, there is much to be learned from the scientific study of how the brain responds to uncertainty. Surprisingly, it’s often counterintuitive strategies that are most effective. To beat anxiety, the scientific evidence tells us to pay attention to what we instinctively want to do and then actively consider its opposite.
Take, for example, a combat veteran who develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a devastating nighttime raid. For years, the soldier’s natural coping strategy has been to avoid not just explicit mention of the trauma but anything even slightly related. While it makes intuitive sense to avoid even loose associations to such painful events, the most effective treatments for PTSD demand the opposite: repeated, detailed discussions of the trauma combined with robust engagement in all facets that were previously avoided in order to cope.