Supporting employees during times of turmoil

Supporting Employees in Times of Turmoil

6 Ways Leaders Can Show Support and Compassion

Even as we emerge with hope from a devastating global pandemic, each day can bring about a new tragedy. We are exposed to upsetting news 24/7: wars, climate disasters, monumental political decisions, mass shootings, and social injustices.

At the same time anxiety, depression, stress, and employee burnout are on the rise. Overall, we all are emotionally overwhelmed and burnt out.

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No one is left unimpacted. Yet, everyone may react differently with emotions ranging from anger to a sense of helplessness to defeat and sadness. These intense feelings impact our relationships with peers, our performance and focus, our emotional well-being, and how we show up at work.

Fortunately, I personally am able to channel my anger and sadness into my passion for solving impactful problems. I do this both in a professional way with my clients and also in my personal life through pro bono consulting for social causes, serving as a board member for a nonprofit encouraging local environmental action, and volunteering for a non-partisan gun safety grassroots movement. Helping in these ways makes me feel less helpless and more productive, even as the problems that lie ahead are seemingly insurmountable.

At work, I connect with my colleagues to understand how events impact them and how I can best support them. This support could include being open to just listening or providing a welcome distraction by focusing on tangible work where we have more control.

Our work and personal lives have blurred in a post-pandemic, work-from-home, and hybrid-working world. Our emotional reactions to social issues and tragedies cross into our work lives and employees often look to their colleagues and workplaces for support and compassion—I know I do. 

While leaders may be at a loss for what to say or do—and may be emotionally conflicted as well—inaction is not an option. Leaders need to demonstrate empathy, acknowledge that we are living through turmoil, and show care for their employees in meaningful ways. 

By doing so, you give space and grace to employees, recognizing that we are whole people, and our personal life is part of our work life, too.

Here are six ways leaders can show support and compassion for their people.

1. Acknowledge tumultuous events

Through available channels, whether it be in-person staff meetings or company-wide emails, a leader must acknowledge tragic events. The message can focus on specific events or allude to a series of serious occurrences without necessarily sharing a political point of view. While words matter, they don’t need to be perfect. The sentiment is what will resonate most with employees. It is important that leaders demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity. Consider sharing something personal. Was it hard to hug your second grader goodbye after a mass shooting at a school the day before? Don’t worry about becoming emotional. Employees need to hear that leaders are human too.

2. Promote small group settings for more intimate conversation

As a manager, create forums for employees to share how they are doing and provide support to each other. These forums do not need to prescribe how deep to go but enable employees to share to the extent they feel comfortable, creating space for meaningful engagement. One impactful technique I've seen is not naming the subject matter, per se, but providing employees the opportunity to share. For example, we did the classic “rose and thorn” ice breaker the day war broke out in Ukraine. We all shared the same thorn. Some were more emotional than others, but it gave the opportunity for peers to check in with each other. 

3. Create open dialogue and lines of communication

When leaders meet with employees in a one-on-one setting, ask how they are doing and truly listen. Gauge their answer and assess if they want to talk more. They may not want to discuss how they are doing or how the latest tragedy impacts them, and that is ok. People process differently and may be open to discussing later. Leaders need to show they are available and open to talking, if and when, employees feel comfortable. It is important to open a line of communication and nurture it.

4. Be flexible

To the extent it is possible, give grace to employees and be flexible with deadlines. That could mean additional time to work on a project or task, allowing time for a longer break or time off, or canceling meetings for the day. These small acts will be meaningful to employees, especially when they may not be in the best state of mind to focus on work.

5. Encourage peer-to-peer bonding

As an engaged leader, you can build community with employees by encouraging them to join active Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) or start new ones. Demonstrate support by investing in the ERGs (e.g., Veterans, LGBTQ) and establishing infrastructure (e.g., Slack and Microsoft Teams) to create meaningful opportunities for connection. Ensure that ERGs are open to all, remain voluntary, and align with your company’s values.

6. Promote external resources

If your organization has resources and benefits that can help employees, now is the time to remind them to take advantage of employee assistance programs such as health and wellness benefits, coaching, and therapy.

Whatever you do—don't do nothing. The absence of saying anything is worse than feeling like you did not say exactly the right words. Create the space for discussion and demonstrate that you care. Caring can show up in so many ways: pausing after you ask how someone is doing or sending a quick 'thinking of you’ text can go a long way in building a connection with your work family.

While we do not have control over the external turmoil, as a leader you can promote a company culture where employees feel supported and enabled to show up as their authentic selves.

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