4 ways to lead employees through times of anxiety

Acknowledging the challenges your team members are facing can be a powerful response to employee anxiety.

With finance teams operating in a global business environment characterised by volatility and uncertainty, leaders must adjust their normal approach and consider the prevailing atmosphere of anxiety.

According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide in its first year. As a result, finance leaders should reflect on some of their conditioned responses to employees who are struggling and consider their approach very carefully, cautioned Jerry Colonna, an executive coach and founder at Reboot, a US-based coaching consultancy.

In addition, finance leaders should also consider what formal support structures are in place to help team members, advised Liza Robbins, chief executive at Kreston Global, an international advisory and accountancy network headquartered in London.

FM magazine interviewed Colonna, Robbins, and Jennifer Challenger, ACMA, CGMA, an executive coach based in London, to find out how finance leaders can best support their team members and lead empathetically through times of hardship and anxiety. Their advice includes:

Acknowledge the challenges

If team members are struggling with anxiety and feeling overly pressured, the first thing to do is to acknowledge that these are difficult times and we don’t know what normal means anymore, Colonna said.

“When a finance leader or manager doesn’t acknowledge the present conditions and challenges and tries to shut down the emotions of those feeling worried or vulnerable, they make the situation worse,” he explained.

In the modern business environment, leaders are affirmed by being successful at managing and motivating employees, so when they encounter employees struggling, it often engenders a feeling of helplessness. In many instances, Colonna said, leaders respond to this helplessness in two socially conditioned yet harmful ways.

“First, with the erroneous belief that if we allow the employee to talk about the thing they’re struggling with, it’s going to make it worse,” he said. “The second myth is the notion that you might be engaging with them in wallowing or self-pity.”

Both are very dangerous reactions to people struggling, cautioned Colonna. It’s dangerous because the person will internalise your response to them, so in addition to anxiety, they then experience shame and are likely to feel they are wrong or somehow broken.

Prioritise support structures

While the pandemic has certainly highlighted the importance of mental health and wellbeing at work, leaders can still do more to prioritise and strengthen support structures for employees, Robbins advised.

For instance, she encouraged finance leaders to invest in and strengthen key employee benefits such as mental health resources, helplines, and access to legal advice.

“Many companies actually have important benefits in place, but their leaders don’t communicate to their employees what is there and how to access it,” Robbins said. “It is important for leaders to really dig into what is available and be very clear with team members about what is there and how to leverage these support systems.”

For companies in which employee support structures are either thin or nonexistent, Robbins encouraged leaders to begin to explore emerging global best practice and to view employees “as their most valuable resource”.

Emphasise collaboration

In times of high stress and anxiety, leaders can alleviate many of their own challenges by learning to delegate and to encourage more collaboration, said London-based Challenger.

“At times of stress and uncertainty, finance leaders tend to take on too much responsibility and assume their team members can’t manage additional challenges,” she explained. “They often don’t understand or acknowledge their own threshold for stress and, instead of delegating, get bogged down by overwork … which has negative consequences in the long term both for the individual and the team.”

To avoid this, Challenger advised finance leaders to foster a culture of collaboration, and to ensure that team members are constantly given opportunities for new responsibilities and challenges.

“Unless leaders learn to delegate, challenge, and demonstrate confidence in their team, they can end up creating a situation in which the team rely on the leader to ‘rescue’ them,” she cautioned. “Part of building long-term resilience among teams and individuals is encouraging them to navigate challenges and new obstacles using their own strength and resources.”

Be honest about your own struggles

Leaders must be transparent and acknowledge what is happening in times of stress and anxiety, Colonna said.

“When a leader doesn’t acknowledge his or her own fear and uncertainty, it more often than not turns into toxic aggression,” he explained.

For example, a finance leader who is worrying about making payroll and is under severe pressure might, instead of talking about the challenge and acknowledging his or her anxiety, start yelling at everybody around him or her. Everybody panics, productivity plummets, profits decline, and the worst nightmare starts to come true.

According to Colonna, the finance leader in this situation should be honest about their fears and struggles but be equally honest about the positives. For example, they can explain why it’s still a good company to work for and what they are doing to tackle the challenge.

“The key point is to invite your team members into the process with you,” he said. “Take the opportunity to welcome people into the situation, rather than seeing yourself as the all-knowing leader who has all the answers all the time, which simply isn’t true.”

By doing this, the finance leader encourages a culture of safety in which it is OK to be struggling and in which team members feel both valued and included in important matters.

Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe, at


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