Rebecca SchalmLucy is a manager who oversees a large team of sales reps. Like many other organizations, hers quickly made the transition to work-from-home. It was a new experience for a team used to working from their downtown office.

Lucy used to be able to monitor her team with regular walk-arounds and check-ins. She had a good handle on how people were doing and who was struggling. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can take her hours to check in on people. She prefers video so she can see body language and maintain a personal connection.

The number of challenges team members are dealing with has skyrocketed. Many live in small spaces shared with others also working from home. Some struggle with child care. Some live alone and are perpetually lonely. Some have family members they’re worried about. Many are bored, distracted, anxious.

Lucy genuinely cares about people and has always taken a personal interest, but now she spends a lot of her time listening to and coaching people around work and personal challenges.

On top of that, her company’s management stresses the importance of employee wellness and support. They’re trying to provide resources and training to help managers like her cope with the new demands, but the rollout has been slow.

She feels a lot of pressure to deliver targets, manage and motivate her team, and also monitor and support their well-being. In what she would call a moment of weakness, Lucy broke down and admitted she found the “endless how are you doing?” conversations tedious, stressful and exhausting.

Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout – physical or emotional exhaustion – that results in a reduced capacity to empathize or feel compassion for others.

Historically, we’ve talked about compassion fatigue within the context of health-care professionals or those working with victims of traumatic stress. It’s a serious condition and I have to believe many of our health-care and long-term care workers are suffering from this today.

What I’ve noticed with leaders I coach or interact with is that some of them, like Lucy, have also experienced a form of compassion fatigue.

Organizations should be applauded for the outstanding efforts they’ve made to accommodate and support employees through the pandemic. It really does feel like we’re in this together.

But responsibility for executing on the goal of responding with care and compassion has fallen largely on managers, many of whom lack the experience, training, skills or even motivation to confidently and competently fulfil this role.

In addition to managing performance, morale and engagement, we’ve charged these managers with the responsibility for overseeing the mental and emotional well-being of their teams. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, let alone in the middle of a crisis when they, too, are dealing with pandemic-induced challenges, stress and their mental health.

We shouldn’t be surprised if, when we ask people to step up and demonstrate an extended and elevated level of compassion, sometimes they get tired.

If you’re a leader, you may have felt the burden of care for others weigh heavily on your shoulders. You may find your interest and concern for them ebbs and flows. Some days you may even feel like screaming. This is completely normal.

Here are a few suggestions of things you can do to support yourself when you feel compassion fatigue:

  • Recognize it’s normal. As a leader, you’re carrying an extra burden. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed or frustrated from time to time.
  • Maintain role boundaries. You can play an important role by showing you care and giving team members opportunities to share stressors and anxieties. But you’re their manager, not their counsellor. Your primary focus should be on helping them succeed in their job. Know when to end or redirect conversations, and when and how to make referrals to alternate supports.
  • Share your stress and anxiety. Have you told your team members you feel responsible for their well-being and how stressful this is for you? If you do, you might find them curious about how they can help support you as well.
  • Have your own sounding board. Make sure you have someone you can go to who cares about you and is willing to listen and support you as well.

The role of a manager in a pandemic demands compassion. Not only for others but also for yourself.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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