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This question from New Amsterdam can help leaders turn coronavirus anxiety around

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

It’s not news that the Covid-19 situation is unprecedented, and organisations and communities of every type are having to figure out how to respond.

A survey at the start of the week found that the biggest impact of the coronavirus on small businesses to date was not actually damage to the bottom line, but worker anxiety. The situation is changing day to day, but even though the financial impact may end up being considerable – sadly, we know of multiple people who have already lost their jobs, with many more on leave or working in businesses with highly uncertain futures... and if you're part of the gig economy right now, things look very uncertain. However, the anxiety is still, in and of itself, an issue. High levels of stress and anxiety can create a wealth of issues including stress-related leave, physical and emotional symptoms, lower productivity and an inability to do your best, most creative and innovative work.

And yet...

All around us, people are responding in amazing, creative ways. I have seen multiple people in my personal network saying something along the lines of, "I felt helpless today so I made this piece of art/wrote this list of self-care practices/put this set of resources together." Turns out feeling helpless can lead to bursts of activity that really bring people together.

The fear many of us are feeling is completely understandable, but it can easily become debilitating. There is endless content available online about the coronavirus. Before you know it, you can find yourself 87 articles deep with nothing to show except a body coursing with stress hormones and a mind racing with anxiety. The issue with this is that while the brain has evolved to help us survive in times of crises, it is hard to do great work in survival mode.

In this post we’re going to look at one question leaders can ask to turn this potentially debilitating anxiety into something more useful – and it comes from the show New Amsterdam, which first aired on Amazon in 2018.

New Amsterdam, and the leadership lesson it can teach us

In the inaugural episode of the show, Dr Max Goodwin (played by Ryan Eggold) is appointed at the troubled, failing hospital as the new medical director. In his opening speech to his new colleagues – which is one of the greatest examples of vulnerable leadership I’ve seen – he reveals that he and his sister were born at New Amsterdam and that she died eight years later from an “entirely preventable” hospital acquired infection. He then goes on to ask one simple question that has the power to define how we respond during this strange and uncertain time.

How can I help?

“That’s not a trick question,” he says. “I’m really asking. I work for you so you can work for your patients. Shout it out.”

Goodwin is not superhuman or a saint, and, as we later see, he exhibits a lot of workaholic behaviours. But he does demonstrate the kind of leadership and vision that organisations large and small need right now – focusing on who and how they can serve in order to respond thoughtfully rather than react with panic.

His response to various crises always revolves around that one simple question:

How can I help?

What to do now

At the Work Psychologists, that’s what we’re currently asking, too. Part of our response involves offering free coaching to any of our clients who are impacted by the coronavirus. As experts in psychology, we’re also going to be offering insights into some of the dynamics that are playing out in the world right now, to help you make sense of what’s happening and navigate your way through it.

This is an unprecedented time, and there is perhaps more uncertainty about the short, medium and even long-term future of many businesses and systems in our world than we’ve ever known. It is therefore scary on multiple levels, but we have a choice about how we respond. A good business could be defined as one that solves a problem – and right now, we have a lot of problems that need solving.

By focusing on the people you are here to serve, you can shift the focus away from the panic. This is a time to double down on your commitment to all the people you are connected to – employees, clients and the wider communities your organisation reaches. In the midst of so much uncertainty, keep these questions at the forefront of everything:

What do people need? How can I help? How can we help?

We are going to get through this: apparently in Wuhan, things are slowly returning to normal. This is not forever.

So while it's here, while we ride this huge wave of uncertainty, perhaps we can explore these questions and find ways to be of service to each other. Perhaps we can step into leadership in new and more expansive, collaborative ways. Perhaps we can find new ways to help.


By Elloa Phoenix Barbour, Associate Head of Content for the Work Psychologists.



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