Abstract: This article explores the ‘other side’ of the challenge of leadership during this pandemic.
The current, unprecedented environment we are in is testing everything we know and all of our leadership acumen and experience. No current living leader has pandemic experience. One of the things that I find increasingly bothersome is what I would describe as a lack of balance in what is becoming an increasingly polarized, political, and partisan debate around next steps. No one knows how or when to reopen the economy, although there is gathering evidence of best practice based on experience from other countries. Instead of focusing on balance and proceeding with caution, the media looks to be singularly focused on using the crisis to criticize government’s (federal, state, and local) response to the pandemic and specifically to cast aspersions on President Trump. Everyone understands that if Trump cured cancer, the media would find a way to blame him for it but what is going on now is particularly dangerous.
From the beginning of the crisis, the President has presented a positive, uplifting message and encouraged people not to lose hope of a better future. The media has excoriated the POTUS for suggesting that if we are not careful, the cure could be worse than the disease. Sadly, the body of evidence that President Trump may be right on this point is increasing. Worse is the fact that there is a lack of balance in most media reporting and discussion about the tradeoffs associated with the risk of reopening vs. the risk of consequences triggered by ill-advised government policy.
In a widely rebroadcast interview, David Muir of ABC tried time after time to bait President Trump to concede that any modicum of reopening that led to one additional death was ill-advised. After excoriating Trump for showing a willingness to take control of reopening, he is now being criticized by the media for allowing states to chart their own paths forward. Muir continues to hammer on these points opening his ‘newscast’ every day. Why has Mr. Muir failed to balance his inquiry and daily reports by acknowledging some of the consequences of not reopening? Could it have anything to do with political agenda or bias?
The growing economic ruin that is being foisted upon us is obvious. There is a little-publicized societal phenomenon called deaths of despair. Deaths of despair are the result of suicide, drug, and alcohol abuse. In the US, there are over 180,000 deaths of despair every year. Petterson et. al have released a well-researched meta-analysis of current studies of COVID related deaths of despair. I found this research to be not only interesting and educational but distressing. The best-case scenario is that INCREMENTAL deaths of despair related to COVID-19 will range from 28,000 to 154,000, with a median of 78,000. As of this writing, there are 83,000 Coronavirus deaths in the US. So yes, the cure could end up being worse than the disease.
One of the precursors of death of despair is increasing use of drugs and alcohol. The article discusses the risks associated with substance abuse in the context of the current environment.
There is increasing debate about the food production industry that has experienced disproportionate challenges with workers getting infected. Should we shut down the food production industry? A Wall Street Journal article published on May 13, 2020, provides insight into the dire consequences of these decisions. Is the risk of infection to a few people worth triggering starvation among thousands? At what point will the citizens of this country begin to revolt as the economic and societal damage increases?
What does this have to do with leadership? Everything! Employees, their families, our families, our friends, and peoples in foreign countries are and will continue to be impacted by the fallout of what hindsight may reveal to be bad policy choices. Leaders should be especially vigilant of the mental and physical health of employees, a responsibility that is complicated by remote workplaces. As a person with suicide in their family, I can attest from personal experience that when our family experienced suicide, no one saw it coming. One of the outcomes of being close to suicide is perpetually lingering guilt that something could and should have been done to recognize the problem and do something about it while there was still time. This week, a man in a men’s group confided that his whole family was in counseling in an effort to support a teenage child that has two friends under the age of fifteen that have committed suicide since the beginning of the lockdown. I don’t recall seeing or hearing anything about these disease-related outcomes in the ‘news.’
Leaders are rightfully concerned with labor productivity. It is the productivity of labor that creates the economic benefit necessary for societal survival and standard of living improvement. The indicators for deaths of despair impact labor productivity negatively. Therefore, it is in the interest of leaders and organizations, especially in times like these to be more sensitive to the status of the employees your business needs to survive. Social distancing, sheltering in place, and working from home collectively act to isolate people, making it more difficult than usual to gauge how employees are doing mentally.
Now more than ever, it is essential for leaders to be outgoing, transparent, and engaging. Leaders have to do more than arrange work and give orders. Good leaders must get closer to employees in order to be positioned to recognize signs that things may not be what they seem or that the person is distressed or depressed. In this context, I am not just addressing business leaders but everyone. All of us have friends, relatives, and acquaintances. There are millions of people out of work and possibly millions more that are having necessary medical care delayed because of the virus. All of us can do a better job of increasing our touchpoints and the sincerity of our interest in the wellbeing of others. As David Muir was trying to get the President to admit that one incremental Coronavirus death is too many, one suicide is too many. If, as a country, we experience an increase in addiction or suicide as a result of our failure to provide the support that people need to endure this crisis, that is equally unacceptable and a sign of collective failure.
The government has an agency, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) that has resources to help employers support employees dealing with the effects of disaster and for individuals that believe they may need help. There is a place on the SAMHSA website for providers to register to become resources to support individuals needing help during a disaster. If you are a provider, you might want to investigate what becoming a SAMHSA provider might mean for your community and service area.
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