John Sayers, managing director at Hodgson Sayers

John Sayers: The psychological impact of the pandemic

John Sayers, managing director of Hodgson Sayers, looks at how the business is managing its way through the Coronavirus pandemic. In this article he looks at the first month and the psychological impact the pandemic was creating within the workforce.

To say that none of the challenges I faced prior to lockdown day of March 23 could have prepared me for the first month is an understatement. The country had been aware for some time that emergency measures would be put in place but the impact it had on staff when it actually happened was so quick, dramatic and overpowering that it felt as though we were in freefall. As a management team we were unprepared for the cascade of emotions and concerns our colleagues were experiencing during those very first days.

Our situation was not helped by the great uncertainty as to whether construction was to be one of the very few industries that would continue to operate throughout the pandemic. The Government indicated the sector would remain open. However, increasing media headlines showing construction workers on some of the major projects in London ignoring social distancing guidelines, resulted in many of the very large civils contractors taking the decision to cease work which, in turn, saw the supply chain suspend activities. We made a very early decision to furlough about half of our staff, while remaining operational, so as to meet the needs of a number of clients, most notably those involved in ensuring the national infrastructure continued to operate.

While manpower and supplier availability were problematic in our ability to fully service the needs of our customers, the real challenge we faced was the impact the unfolding crisis was having on staff. At one extreme we had those who were truly frightened and just did not want to be at work and at the other end of the scale a small number who were totally indifferent to the whole thing. Then, there was every other emotion in between. So, this was our real challenge and at times it felt overwhelming.

In terms of staff we had two issues to consider. The first was that we were now essentially in two camps. Those at work and those furloughed. Our approach here was clear cut. While some of us may be at home, we are one team. To this end, the management team put increased effort in to ensuring that those furloughed received regular updates and information from the business, so that they knew they were not being forgotten and there was an open invitation for anyone to text, email or telephone the senior team to ask for further information or to talk more openly about their concerns and fears. We also made a decision not to talk about the contracts we were working on or new business we were winning, so those furloughed did not feel we were moving forward without them.

In all of this process we came to recognise that communication was vital and that it needed to be on almost a daily basis, with the tone of the message as important as the message itself. We picked up on the importance of tone from the reaction staff were having to Government guidelines as they were being introduced.

While the Government’s messages might have been clear in themselves, it was the implied or inferred comments such as, for example, that things would get a lot worse before they got better, or that we all stood to lose loved ones, that truly unsettled staff. So, we tried as hard as we could to use wording that was clear and easy to understand, was realistic as to the situation the business was in but which, hopefully, was empathetic and understanding. We also knew that along with carefully worded company information we also had to communicate with colleagues on a one-to-one basis.

We have a small management team and we have always operated an open door policy, with colleagues, many of whom are also personal friends, free to discuss their concerns. Such was the scale of one-to-one meetings and impromptu conversations, that myself and the management team began to realise that each of us was in danger of giving conflicting messages to staff members. On the basis that none of us had ever been involved in such intense activity and with people whose concerns and fears varied dramatically, it was not surprising that we were inadvertently relaying different messages.

We also had to understand that staff were scrutinising every word we told them and reinterpreting them in different ways. As a management team we have learned from this lesson and we are now much more aware that we have to retain a balance of being ‘on message’ while also realising that every member of staff is different and in their own way need reassurance and understanding. Some will be best supported by being provided with a clear direction, while others just want us to listen as they talk through their anxieties. We have met with some people perhaps two or three times in a day, such has been the intensity of it all.

During the first month and now at the end of month three, with some normality returning to the country, we are still heavily involved in discussions with staff. I know that many of them are exhausted - especially those whose family members are elderly or vulnerable - and I have to say that it has taken a great deal out of us all. I have no doubt that we are not alone in this respect and that tens of thousands of companies across the land will have faced the same issues that we have.

While this article is a reflection of the challenges that we have come through and it has been extremely stressful, it would be remiss of me not to finish by saying how proud I am of all our staff. In the face of adversity we have all come together as a team and there is now a fierce bond that unites us. We understand each other more and there is a heightened sense of mutual respect. It is powerful, you can almost feel it and it will get us through to brighter days.

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