By now, most of us have probably established some sort of routine, as we are approaching five weeks in isolation. In the best of scenarios, routine and structure are providing a buffer against the psychological toll being taken. However, for some it’s not enough. We all have our own unique circumstances and struggles that we are facing, with many experiencing various mental health difficulties,1 challenging home situations,2 and financial uncertainties.3 Additionally, as the pandemic evolves, many are now dealing with the added pressure of caring for sick family members. As a species, the longer we spend in isolation, the longer we must learn to deal with these radical new life circumstances. More than ever, leaders need to be able to relate to, and set policies, based on the experiences of their employees. Many leaders may believe they are being empathetic, when they are really expressing sympathy or kindness; empathy moves beyond understanding and compassion for others; it is being able to meaningfully relate to the experiences of others - “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that to guide actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.”4
Still not clear on how empathy may differ from sympathy? Let’s look at an example of what empathy is not… In early March, when the U.S. was seeing its first cases of COVID-19, a correspondent for NBC News, asked President Trump about the psychological toll: “Nearly two hundred dead, fourteen thousand who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared,’ Alexander said.5 ‘What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?’ Trump shot back, ‘I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.’”6 The President’s response exposed his obliviousness to the scope of the disease, and ignorance to the “spiraling anxiety [and fears] among Americans.” Almost any other response would have been better and more empathetic than Trump’s.
For many, the challenges faced by the pandemic will be obstacles to manage personally and individually, but for leaders with teams, the circumstances require increased vigilance and expressions of empathy. Leaders are uniquely responsible for their teams, and right now, more than ever before, the productivity, efficiency, engagement, and motivation levels in employees, are being impacted because physiological needs are threatened.7 More than ever before, it is important for leaders to be able to relate to their employees, responding to challenges with flexible policies, processes, and behaviours that uniquely support their employees.
Let’s consider some experiences and circumstances affecting people that may expose the biases some leaders will be vulnerable to:
The above examples aren’t unique to those on your team; you may also be experiencing some of these challenges. On the contrary, you may not be experiencing any, and in fact, drawing strength from a stable job/income; embracing a slower pace; and enjoying the opportunities to reconnect with family. Whatever your scenario and personal experience, it shouldn’t change the leadership your team is getting from you.The burden of leadership is two-fold: Rising above your own experience to provide exceptional leadership to your team; and, taking on the challenges of your employees, and embracing them as part of your challenge in leading them, and your organization through uncertainty. For many employees, personal optimism and connecting to feelings of meaningfulness, will not provide enough resilience to overcome this period of time. It is not your responsibility to be able to fix all their problems, but it is your responsibility to ensure that you act with consideration and when possible, accommodate to give your team the best possible chance at providing the highest quality of work. Imagine that in the best of scenarios, work provides a sense of meaningful purpose and stability for someone that may not have otherwise had that in their lives.
1. Memo. (2020). Chinese student commits suicide in Saudi after being quarantined for coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200217-chinese-student-commits-suicide-in-saudi-after-being-quarantined-for-coronavirus/
2. Westmarland., N, & Bellini., R. (2020). Coronavirus lockdown is a dangerous time for victims of domestic abuse – here’s what you need to know. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-lockdown-is-a-dangerous-time-for-victims-of-domestic-abuse-heres-what-you-need-to-know-134072
3. Sainato., M. (2020). 'Suddenly I have no paycheck': layoffs and cuts for workers rocked by coronavirus. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/coronavirus-workers-employees-staff-wages?utm_medium=10today.ad3li.20200319.421.1&utm_source=email&utm_content=article&utm_campaign=10-for-today---4.0-styling
4. Krznaric., R. (2012). Six Habits of Highly Empathic People. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_habits_of_highly_empathic_people1
5. Edelman., A. (2020). Trump, promoting unproven drug treatments, insults NBC reporter at coronavirus briefing. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-rips-reporter-who-asked-him-calm-scared-americans-terrible-n1165031
6. Wright., R. (2020). How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll
7. McLeod., S. (2007). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
8. Hopper., E. (2020). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Explained. Thought Co. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4582571
9. Reeves., R. V., & Rothwell., J. (2020). Class and COVID: How the less affluent face double the risks. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/03/27/class-and-covid-how-the-less-affluent-face-double-risks/
10. The Economist. (2020). American inequality meets covid-19. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/04/18/american-inequality-meets-covid-19
11. Roder., N. (2020). Kids and WFH: Working From Home With No Childcare. Workfest by Zenefits. Retrieved from https://www.zenefits.com/workest/coronavirus-and-the-workforce-working-from-home-with-no-childcare/
12. Taub., A. (2020). A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html
13. Faris., D. (2020). Coronavirus' looming psychological crisis. The Week. Retrieved from https://theweek.com/articles/903343/coronavirus-looming-psychological-crisis
14. Blakely, T. A., Collings, S. C., & Atkinson, J. (2003). Unemployment and suicide. Evidence for a causal association?. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 57(8), 594-600.
15. Miller., G. (2020). Social distancing prevents infections, but it can have unintended consequences. Science. Retrieved from https://www.science.org/content/article/we-are-social-species-how-will-social-distancing-affect-us
16. Sacks., E. (2020). Social distancing could have devastating effect on people with depression. News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/social-distancing-could-have-devastating-effect-people-depression-n1157871
17. Kirkey., S. (2020). What a coronavirus quarantine could do to your mental health. National Post. Retrieved from https://nationalpost.com/health/coronavirus-covid-19-quarantine-self-isolation
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19. Pennisi., E. (2011). How Humans Became Social. ScienceNOW. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2011/11/humans-social/
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21. Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912-920.