In these uncertain and stressful times, it is more important than ever for leaders to demonstrate empathy and compassion. 

Harvard Business Review recently published this article by Jennifer Moss looking at the role of empathy in leadership in preventing stress, fatigue and burnout in organisations.

How many of us are currently living without margins — the space to handle life’s simplest stresses? I know I’ve fallen into this trap myself. It can happen after being mentally stretched and dealing with chronic stress for too long. Basically, we are left with zero margin for error. It also means that we don’t realize we’re at our max until it’s too late. Before we know it, we’ve hit the wall. 

As part of the research that I’m doing for my forthcoming book on burnout, I spoke with Dr. Marie Åsberg, MD, psychiatrist, expert in exhaustion disorder, and professor at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. It’s from Dr. Åsberg that I learned about “hitting the wall.” She describes this as the moment “where some additional burden is placed on the employee and they experience a mental break.” She showed me the evolution of this disorder over an 18-month period. An employee tends to experience small ebbs and flows of stress and then suddenly, a cliff. That one stressor isn’t any different from any others, it’s just the final blow — the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The margins eventually give way. 

A brand-new survey of 3,900 employees and business leaders across 11 nations, led by The Workforce Institute at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group) and Workplace Intelligence, discovered that burnout and fatigue are equally concerning for employees working remotely (43%) and those in a physical workplace (43%). Overall, three in five (59%) employees and business leaders say their organization has taken at least some measures to guard against burnout, though nearly a third (29%) of employees wish organizations would act with more empathy. 

The key word here is empathy. In my communication with leaders, I encourage them to rethink the definition of empathetic leadership — particularly as it pertains to preventing burnout. We tend to connect empathy to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But I don’t believe that goes far enough. If you authentically want to demonstrate empathy you have to “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” That requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action. 

I did discover some bright spots in my research — there are plenty of leaders who are working tirelessly to bridge the divide. During interviews for my book, I wandered into these stories of authentic empathy — the use of golden rule 2.0 — to stop burnout from rapidly escalating. These leaders were (and still are) pivoting their policies and practices at lighting speed — attempting to stay one step ahead of the pandemic’s destructive path. All of them are learning on the fly and abandoning old thinking for new approaches, as they realized that what may have been helpful at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown could quickly become harmful. For example, they realized that asking employees to spend hours on end on video conferences, and then expecting them to come back on for an afternoon happy-hour or morning yoga, was defeating the purpose of those activities and turning well-being into workload. 

Pivot for Your People, Not Just Your Products 

Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, says he realized during the pandemic that his people weren’t taking the time off they needed to recuperate. “The data shows that, at home, our staff were kind of working 24/7.” Although he assumed that giving Fridays off would help, his staff just ended up working Saturdays because the workload remained the same. So, he decided to change the deliverables. “If you really want to take the pressure off the team, you have the adjust the workload.” 

Although the payoff for Okta employees remains to be seen, McKinnon has the right idea here. First, we leverage data-based decisions to quickly assess what is at the root of the stress. Then, we employ upstream strategies to tackle the problem. And, being patient and supportive about people’s fears right now will be critical to preventing burnout. 

Take for example, Eugenie Fanning, VP of People at Squarefoot, a tech-enabled commercial real estate company based in Manhattan, who shared in our interview that during the pandemic, reinforcing trust has helped to mitigate burnout. Understanding that there was fear about returning to the office, her team went far beyond the standard safety protocols  in an effort to reduce anxiety for their staff. Employees had the autonomy to choose when they would return, and for many, the office was a respite from working at home. 

Parents with children under 18 comprise almost one-third of the U.S. workforce and many of them are suffering. Nearly half of parents (46%) saying their stress level is high (between 8 and 10 on a 10-point scale where 1 means “little or no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress”) according to the American Psychological Association’s report, “Stress in the Time of Covid-19.” It’s likely why my conversation with Jamie Coakley, VP of People for Electric, a New-York based IT Solutions company, resonated. She has been working to address the major impact on working parents. Coakley set up a parent forum to open up discussions about how parents are faring during the pandemic. It was after seeing an exchange between two senior VPs that she realized how challenging it had become. One senior executive just put it out there, “How are you all doing this?” The response, “We’re not. You’re either a bad parent or a bad employee.” Coakley had already instituted flex hours, planned to introduce a childcare stipend, and opened the office for anyone who needed it. But she says, “We’ve started to brainstorm that next layer of support. Flexible hours are not enough. It’s not really solving for the day-to-day challenges of having to be in two places at once. So, my job now is just better programming and support for our parents.” 

Both of Jamie and Eugenie’s examples are rooted in empathy. Their actions tell a story. “How can I make you feel safe? What else can I do to help? I’m not afraid to keep learning. I can do more.” 

Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., executive director of UKG, agrees: “Even though the economy is struggling, organizations have a tremendous opportunity to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic even stronger than before. By going back to the foundational needs that should form the basis of the employer-employee relationship — physical safety, psychological security, job stability, and flexibility — they will cultivate newfound trust and empathy.” 

Know Your Workforce 

Elaine Davis, Chief Human Resources Officer at Continuum Global Solutions, leads an organization of mostly hourly workers — about 17,000 — who are based in call-centers. In mid-March, she moved all of them to remote work — no small feat. Davis knows that her staff, comprised of majority female workers and many single moms, are overwhelmed by the juggle right now. The biggest need for her employees? Davis says it’s pay. Obviously, in any organization, appropriate compensation is a top priority. But, for many hourly workers, getting paid could mean the difference between getting access to medical care, keeping the lights on, eating properly, or even preventing an eviction — situations that are becoming even more precarious during the pandemic. 

According to a survey of more than 3,000 hourly workers by Branch, a wellness platform turned challenger bank, approximately 80% of hourly workers had less than $500 saved for an emergency, and 52% had $0 saved because of the pandemic — a 12% increase from last year; 76% had already delayed or missed a bill payment. 

In light of this reality, Davis joined up with the CEO of Branch, Atif Siddiqi. His company had already been partnering with employers that wished to give employees’ access to a portion (50%) of their pay before payday. Particularly for employees who’d been hit hard from Covid-19, it helped to keep their heads above water. 

The Psychological Safety of Physical Safety 

If you’ve read my other Harvard Business Review articles on burnout, you’ll see conversations with Dr. Edward Ellison, a medical doctor and co-CEO of The Permanente Federation, frequently cited. He wrote about the massive negative impacts of physician burnout in the Annals of Internal Medicine and has spent a large part of his career prioritizing strategic burnout prevention in the places he’s worked. 

When I spoke to Dr. Ellison this time around, he was right in the epicenter of the fires ravaging his home state of California. He’d previously created practices and procedures for the communities he serves in response to the wildfires — such as increased virtual and in-home care. But now with Covid-19, he’s trying to juggle both situations, all while prioritizing the safety of his staff. He says, “When you talk about the biggest questions related to burnout and mental health, the first thing our staff wanted to know at the outset of the pandemic was, ‘Can you keep me safe and can you keep my family safe?’ I had to ensure that they were also taking care of themselves.” 

Although Dr. Ellison says he’s worried about the potential risk of his employees experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of this “horrifying experience,” he’s taken away some critical learnings. “First, we realized we can be agile and nimble — we reacted very quickly. Second, we realized how well our members, patients, physicians, and staff embraced telemedicine/telehealth. And third, there was an undeniable commitment to interdependence and selflessness — a leaning-in and helping approach to the job each day, which was something that kept us in really good stead.” 

And yet, it always comes back to relationships. Friendships at work — whether in person or virtual — can be the difference between surviving these extremely stressful events or burning out entirely. 

“I think there’s a tendency in the pandemic for everyone to feel alone, especially with physical distancing,” says Dr. Ellison. “But for caregivers, it becomes all about what connects you. Often, that’s the camaraderie with other members of the team, and the sense that team members can lean on one other to deal with the isolation and grief — both in their personal lives and when they’re losing patients they’ve come to really care for.” 

Although some situations may seem more dire, each of these issues is a real threat to the mental health and psychological safety of our people. We, as leaders, all have to meet different needs for the individuals we serve. If there’s one more lesson we can take away from the pandemic, it’s that burnout was always there, but in times of real stress, it explodes. 

What is compelling about Dr. Ellison’s experience and the others I mention is their uniqueness. From balancing family burnout, to the fears associated with entering a physical office, to managing overwork, to protecting lives, they reinforce the reality that taking a one-size-fits-all approach to burnout prevention won’t help. Resilient leaders make quick pivots and remain nimble. Empathetic leaders dial in to the needs of their employees and adjust to the moment. And human-centered leaders give their companies a fighting chance to flourish in the middle of a global pandemic. 

This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review September 28th, 2020. 

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