2020 – the year of fear. A fear which twists in your gut; coils around your heart; squeezing your lungs, until you struggle for breath; paralysing your ability to think or act; making you grasp with desperation to anything that feels safe.

What happens when that fear is what you feel every time you’re at work?

How does a company in an environment of lockdowns, social distancing, working from home, economic challenges and cost cutting measures – stop an all pervading sense of fear creeping into its culture and its staff.

And what does that fear do to the company that fails to arrest its spread?

A company with a culture of fear is a company setting itself up for failure. That company’s most important asset – its people – are responding with anger, with insecurity, withdrawing into themselves. They cannot be productive, imaginative, creative, collaborative. In a challenging economic environment, such as we currently have globally, employees who are fearful will contribute to their company’s downward spiral, and ultimately failure.

The problem is that with Covid, companies are slowly developing a culture of fear amongst their staff without realising that it is happening – because their people are isolated and not connected.

One of the early signs of a culture of fear is an increase in the number of complaints to HR – particularly complaints of harassment or bullying.

Such a complaint is a lose-lose scenario for everyone – for the company (who must investigate, and usually has to make a termination and a payout); for the accuser (who feels afraid, bullied, harassed); and for the accused (who is usually also afraid, insecure and, on occasion, misunderstood). The emotional stress and strain that accompanies such claims usually also brings with it significant health issues (inability to sleep, nausea, anxiety, depression, cardio-vascular disease) – both for the accuser and the accused.

And sometimes, particularly in a company with a culture of fear, such complaints have no grounding in fact, and are being made solely to protect a job which an employee perceives is under threat of being lost. I saw just such a case recently – an employee who feared losing their job during Covid, made a complaint about his manager being a bully – even whilst that manager was herself in hospital with health issues. The company investigated, and ultimately lost both the employee and the manager – after significant stress and health issues were caused. The company itself was in the middle of a regulator review – which was being led by this manager and the employee – and suffered from losing key staff at such a critical time.

So how does a company develop a heart? How does it stop a culture of fear from pervading its staff?

In my view, there are a number of things that a company can do – even in a Covid environment with social distancing and working from home. These include:

  • Taking time to understand each individual employee, and the pressures on them in their job and their personal lives – what is happening to them at home, how are their families (their children, their parents, their extended families coping) especially if they are in lock down or working from home;
  • How can the company help their employees? Can they organise child care; well being sessions – exercise; massage; meditation; – either online during work hours, or, if lockdown is eased, with a small number of employees gathering in one place to benefit from such activities;
  • Communication – increasing the communication going to employees – both firm-wide, but also on an individual level – with managers. Creating a buddy system where employees are assigned to each other and requested to check in at least once a week;
  • Enforcing strict rules around work times – making sure that employees log off and spend time with their families; delivering dinner once a month to employees to encourage family gatherings.
  • Finding and understanding people’s strengths – and empowering individual employees to identify their own strengths and move within the company to a role that enables them to work to their strength;
  • Celebrating when lockdowns are eased – preferably in person by getting together and catching up.


These are just a few practical steps that could be taken. But fundamentally, to prevent fear, and build a company that has heart, you need to build a company that genuinely, and warmly, cares – about its people, their families and their lives; the community it operates in and the impact it has on that community; and that has a sense of purpose, and helps its people to feel that sense of purpose.

Thrive can help – it can help a company develop a heart, and embed within that company a culture of nurturing, of support and understanding – where people feel safe, empowered and heard.

Astrid Raetze

Astrid is a financial services lawyer. She has spent the majority of her career working for a large, global law firm, and a large multi-disciplinary firm. She has recently set up her own legal and consulting firm, and can be reached at astrid.raetze@abmlconsulting.com.au

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