By Holly LeMaster

Most of us are entering month six of our first global pandemic.  We could never have anticipated, back in March, how long we’d endure this upheaval (and, of course, we don’t yet know) or how it might impact our daily lives. Chances are, we tuned into our employees back then, asking about and listening to what they needed, shifting from office to work-at-home environments or bolstering them to keep showing up at work in challenging and frightening circumstances. But the months have marched on, summer is over now, and we’re still in the midst of this crisis.  Different realities are setting in as we understand that this is a marathon, that we have to plan for the long haul. Are you, as a leader, still aware and connected to your people? Do you know what your employees need now?

I was coaching a senior executive this week who shared a story: during one of their team’s daily huddles, a manager who’s a single mom told her peers that she’d missed an important email with details about registering one of her three children for school, and didn’t show up when she was supposed to. Her high level of job responsibility, coupled with the complexity of parenting three kids on her own, had stretched this mom beyond capacity. Here at the beginning of August families across the country are facing daunting realities around sending their children back to school (or not)—pressures that may not be obvious to leaders who don’t have students may not be sensitive to.

In healthcare organizations, our clinical teams are facing unexpected crises that evolve with each passing week. I heard from a group of nursing leaders recently that their team members are facing a whole new aspect of grief. Typically, Intensive Care Unit patients might occupy a bed for 2-3 days, often with loved ones by their sides, and then be transferred. Currently, Covid patients admitted to the ICU often stay 7-10 days, and many of them don’t survive. Because the highly contagious nature of the virus prevents friends and family from being there, the nursing team forge even deeper bonds than usual with these very sick patients. And it’s devastating for the nurses when they pass away. This is just one example of how clinicians are being stretched, physically, mentally, and emotionally, by doing their jobs.

And healthcare leaders find themselves essentially on call 24/7. They feel the obligation of being present to their teams and their patients, to help them with whatever crises may arise—day, night, or weekend. They’re finding it impossible to unhook from their crucial work on the front lines, even when they’re not physically present in the hospital.

Some people who are working from home say they’re putting in more hours than ever. Work and personal lives are inextricably intertwined with no clear boundaries. Work hours and “free” time bleed into one another, sometimes in necessarily illogical ways. They used to have the physical transition of making the commute to and from work to contain the workday; not so any longer. It’s much easier now to wander over to the computer after dinner to finish a project or sit down on the sofa Saturday morning to catch up on emails—work that might otherwise have waited until the next morning, or until Monday. An ironic twist as many employers feared their employees would be less productive, not more, working from home. The negative impact of this is that people feel like they’re never truly “off”—like work is never ending—creating a sort of hamster wheel effect that can diminish enthusiasm and contribute to burnout over time.

Those who live in bustling households might have trouble finding a private space for video conferences or are unable to focus on work as children need meals, attention, or help with school work. Others who live alone confront daily the reality of isolation and loneliness, perhaps longing for the social interaction and collegiality of being at the workplace.


And then there are countless people who show up at their jobs every day—many providing essential services to the rest of us—who are working because they have to but may be facing fears of getting sick themselves, bringing it home to their loved ones, or perhaps trying to figure out how to provide care for their children who won’t be going back to school yet.

So suffice it to say that, as we find ourselves here in August, everyone is experiencing their own unique challenges in navigating our collective circumstances.

The story about the mom who missed registration had a happy ending. Because she is deeply supported by her colleagues and her leader, who made it clear they were there to back her up, she was able to laugh about the situation and make arrangements to register her child on another day. But it made the senior leader pause to wonder: how many other team members in our organization are struggling with tough circumstances that we might not be aware of? Her insight led her to share the question with her peers, a reminder to check in with their own teams and find out what they need to face their daily life challenges.

It’s a great time to pause and learn from this leader. Consider your own team and ask yourself, “How are they feeling right now? What’s stressing them out? What do they need to talk about? And how can I help?” We have to be intentional about paying attention, asking the right questions, and then following through on getting people the support they need as the Covid marathon continues.

So suffice it to say that, as we find ourselves here in August, everyone is experiencing their own unique challenges in navigating our collective circumstances.

Strategies for tuning in to your team

Wondering how, specifically, to support your team members? Here are some strategies to try.

  • Make time for people to pause. This could be 1:1 or in small groups–time dedicated to focus on the human beings and their needs, vs. tasks and work-oriented goals.
  • Create safe spaces for conversation and collegiality. Team members coming together to share and process their thoughts and feelings and support one another in a positive way can be incredibly powerful. People feel stronger when their struggles are normalized and they know they’re not alone.
  • Ask them what they need. You might be surprised by what you hear–perspectives you hadn’t considered and circumstances you might not be aware of could arise.
  • Listen deeply. Sometimes, being genuinely heard is all that’s required. A compassionate sounding board can go a long way.
  • Be open and empathetic. You may not fully understand, agree with, or support everything you hear. And that’s okay. See if you can genuinely put yourself in the other person’s seat and see the world through their eyes.
  • Take action where possible. To the best of your ability, commit to taking action steps that are doable and follow through on your word. Don’t over-promise things on their behalf that are beyond your control.
  • Provide strategies for resilience. Just like any other skill you teach your team members, resilience techniques can be taught and learned. Bolstering your peoples’ ability to handle and bounce back from stressful circumstances will strengthen your team’s success.
  • Take good care of yourself. If you, the leader, are depleted, exhausted, and overwhelmed, there won’t be anything left to support your team members. Self care is crucial during these chaotic and uncertain times, for all of us.
  • Ask for help. Remember that, just because you’re the leader, you don’t have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Chances are, there are people and resources poised to support you in your challenges, as well. Ask for the help you need.