To say times are turbulent is an understatement. Activities that we used to do without concern– going to a movie, to work, saying hi to a neighbor from three, not six, feet away – now pose a risk to personal and public health. There’s widespread economic and personal pain. And the pandemic triggering this is outside of our individual control.
The shifting economic realities are top of mind for every business, but leaders must also attend to the shifting emotional landscape. The human experience of the pandemic directly impacts any organization’s most important asset – it’s people.
And how are the people doing? According to a March 2020 survey from the American Psychiatric Association, 36% of Americans say coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health. Even before COVID-19, 1 out of 5 employees fit the criteria for a diagnosable mental health challenge at any given time. Articles speaking of widespread societal grief are virally resonant. The majority of American adults are worried about the health of loved ones and predict financial insecurity.
There’s no playbook for leading through COVID. Yet, how leaders respond will be remembered. Everyone is watching President Trump, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and other leaders, including those at work.
Clearly, we need leaders who can inspire resilience and connection and do it with compassion. Some leaders, like Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, seem to naturally embody these skills. But for those leaders who are struggling with how to respond to the unprecedented challenges of a pandemic, concrete “crisis response” skills can be cultivated. The good news is that they don’t require you to be super-human. Regular, fallible humanity is welcome and embraced.
Ten ways to support your team in times of crisis
I pulled this list together by synthesizing research in psychology with my experience as a leadership coach, as a program designer of global leadership development programs at BetterUp, and, perhaps most importantly, my years as a crisis counselor supporting thousands of trauma survivors to find stability amidst the unimaginable. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it gives a sense of how simple acts of humanity can make a world of difference when it comes to supporting the social and emotional well-being of your people in difficult times.
The pandemic impacts us all, including leaders. When flying on airlines, we’re directed to, in case of emergency, put our own oxygen mask on first before helping another. Similarly, we can only support others for so long before running out of air if we aren’t taking care of our own foundational needs. That’s why the first five tips focus on self-leadership.
1. Check-in with yourself
Can you answer the question, “How am I doing?” For most, it’s a challenge to answer honestly, even to ourselves. Some of us have gotten as far as we have thanks to our capacity to compartmentalize troubling personal challenges. Now, many of us may find the emotions are too big to fit inside our usual compartments. But whether we recognize them or ignore them, emotions are contagious. Recognition and ownership of our experience is what helps us avoid needlessly projecting our experience onto others.
But how do you build this skill? A good place to start is to ask yourself a few times per day, “How am I doing?” When teaching children to practice “tuning in,” child psychologists often give them the visual of a thermometer. The lower part, level one, is cool and calm. The red part, level 10, is hot, stressed, and probably overwhelmed. Tracking our emotional temperature opens up the possibility of managing our internal experience before we hit the red zone, rather than unconsciously allowing our feelings to manage us, or to manage our team.
2. Practice radical acceptance
Radical acceptance is a fundamental aspect of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and it’s also an integral aspect of mindfulness and wisdom traditions. When it comes to managing ourselves amidst a crisis, radical acceptance is an energy saver. You see, pain and suffering are unavoidable. But what is avoidable is the energy we invest in wishing things were different, or fretting over the difference between what is true and what we think “should” be true.
How do you practice this skill? When you notice yourself flustered, check-in, and see if there’s a part of you at odds with reality. Breathe in, inviting curiosity. Breathe out, letting go of judgment. It’s not easy, but it really can be as simple as dialing up the curiosity and dialing down the judgment.
3. Set reasonable goals
Brene Brown recently spoke of her tendency to over-function in crisis situations. It’s easier to over-function than it is to feel, she explained. Many leaders can relate to this desire (which might look like trying to save the world, or some small part of it) or to the opposite tendency to under-function (which might look like collapsing on the sofa with Netflix). Rather than seeing our roles as heroism (“my team will exceed all the goals!”), or simply bowing out (“we’re doomed, so why bother!”), another approach is to ensure we’re setting realistic goals.
How does one do this? Lean on trusted thought partners–a spouse, a friend, a coach. Often as humans, we need to talk goals through in order to assess them with our wise mind and fine-tune our approach.
4. Invest in emotional hygiene
Life will always have ups and downs, and even in the best times, maintaining well-being requires some level of “emotional hygiene” and intentional effort. But in the midst of COVID-19, social isolation means many of us have lost access to our go-to tools and behaviors.
So what can we do about this? We may be inundated with resources and ideas for self-care. Many of the ideas won’t resonate or don’t actually fit within the reality of our lives. I recommend identifying the two to three non-negotiables you need to get through this period. For my husband, an ER physician, it’s sleep and exercise. For others, the formula will include professional support. If you’re stuck for ideas, here’s a list of simple activities I pulled together for Psychology Today.
5. Savor the positive
To further honor the complexity of our inner worlds, even the experience of joy seems fraught. Some of us are really doing just fine. Thriving, in fact. Enjoying the time. Enjoying the lack of commute. Enjoying our bunker-mates. And though it’s exceedingly rare to feel only positive, most of us have a mixture of ups and downs. In many conversations, I’ve noticed people expressing guilt when sharing the positive.
How do I allow the good? Remember radical acceptance? It applies to the positive as well. Just as it’s acceptable to not be okay right now, it’s equally okay to be okay. Finding it hard to tap into joy? Try meaning or gratitude. Well-being is multi-faceted. Tapping into the existing positivity, and savoring it, benefits you, as well as those around you.
These next five tips focus on how we interact with others as leaders at any level.
6. Check-in with teammates
Great leaders don’t need to know exactly what to do in uncertain times. If you’re looking to help the situation, communicate that you welcome input from your team, not that you have all the answers. While we can be experts in our field, individuals are experts in themselves.
7. Practice radical acceptance
Radical acceptance applies to you and your team. The stress of COVID-19 impacts health (mental and physical), sleep, focus, and productivity. You may not like that your team isn’t operating at 100%, but accepting it and working within the reality of the situation, will help you make better decisions. Overworking your team when reserves are low puts them at higher risk for long-term burnout. Adjusting goals to the needs of this season (which will end at some point), and offering flexibility wherever possible, will promote sustainable success. Even the most ambitious farmers let fields lie fallow in order to promote longer-term productivity.
8. Provide resources
In 2009, Robert Manderscheid warned that leaders should be prepared to address the mental health needs in the face of a “moderately likely” pandemic. Well, here we are. He conveyed that, in such a situation, we may see a secondary pandemic of traumatic stress and mental health challenges. Investing in comprehensive support services has positive returns in the best of times, but in times of crisis, research indicates the ROI is even greater due to long term drops in absenteeism, presenteeism, workers comp, and leave.
Consider tiered support services to address the needs of an entire organization. Coaching or wellness apps can be served to the entire population, while higher-cost clinical care can be available to those who need it.
9. Be clear
When leading through a crisis, clarity is critical. Be specific and decisive. When the system is already in overdrive, it’s difficult to process nuance and complexity. Be crystal clear about the type of support you can offer and the choices they have.
10. Cope ahead
One way to prepare is to consider some common challenges that will arise that are unique this time. Examples include parents and caregivers losing their access to childcare for a very long time, team members getting sick, team members losing loved ones. No one wants to think about these challenges, but thinking ahead about the best ways you can respond with the resources you have at your disposal can prevent confusion and added strain down the road.