| May 25, 2021

What COVID-19 Taught Us About Leading With More Compassion and Empathy

Find out why the life changing pandemic period has encouraged more compassion and empathy into leadership.
feeding bird compassion scaled
By Kathy Jeffery |

<1 minutes

Over the past year, workplace difficulties that have always proven a challenge — such as balancing home and work life, avoiding burnout, and increased racial/political tensions — have intensified.

In the early months of the pandemic, working remotely, Zoom fatigue, the fear of going out, and losing social connections became serious concerns for a lot of people. Meanwhile, the crisis has also taught us plenty of lessons about leading during these taxing times.

Roles Might Need to Shift to Support New Worker Realities

Although the pandemic created more mental health and well-being challenges the silver lining is that there is greater awareness to reduce the stigma. More organizations are advocating for policies and employee benefits that support mental health. There is an overwhelming need for organizations to support people with mental illness in the workplace. The pandemic also forced us all to look inside and reevaluate what is most important to our employees. Employees are more in-tune than ever to what is going on around them. They’re recognizing just how important it is to have environments that are nurturing, compassionate and caring.

With these changes, leaders have a strong need to reexamine their role and adopt more people-centric viewpoints. These changes in thinking and doing can play an enormous role in ensuring that workers feel properly supported even amid great uncertainty and turmoil.

In my own work as a Chief People Officer, my responsibilities have traditionally centered on change management and creating a positive organizational culture. As the pandemic and social unrest reared its ugly head, in the last year my role shifted toward crisis management. Because of that my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes came more naturally and my range of empathy has expanded. In looking inward, I realized that my level of empathy can affect the safety of employees and their emotional wellbeing. There is also a greater need for all leaders and managers to be more vulnerable and tap into their empathy.

Collectively, our leadership team took a four-legged approach to better communication: holding twice weekly meetings, educational talks, leadership momentum and vision emails, and social justice group discussions. In all of these approaches, we emphasized communication and understanding what employees would want and how they felt. We encouraged managers to check in with their team members regularly, be less critical during performance reviews, and focus on using Positive Psychology methods to create a stronger sense of psychological safety for everyone.

Over the last several months, we created social justice discussions where employees could talk openly about the concerns they have for the injustices we are seeing in various underserved communities. Although I’ve never led discussions on topics like race or policing before — and I’m not the most knowledgeable on these topics — I’m taking on that challenge and embracing being uncomfortable to help others come together to create a better, safer community at work. In leading these discussions and building support networks with our employees, it opens up transparency, builds a sense of community, and psychological safety.

Tips to Lead with Compassion and Empathy in Your Own Business

Every workplace will have its own unique troubles to overcome, but there are a handful of strategies that can universally help you be more empathetic and caring as a leader:

1. Listen and Educate Yourself

When the people on your team are going through a rough patch, the best thing you can do is listen. The next best thing is to educate yourself. If you are not aware of the challenges they face, do some research instead of asking them to educate you about what they’re experiencing. Of course, they need to communicate that something is wrong, but burdening them with the duty of teaching you about a topic you’re not aware of is not appropriate. You need to be prepared about certain relevant topics to effectively relate and take action.

Take the time to really listen to what they’re telling you. Put yourself in their shoes and remember what employees want most is to know that their manager cares about them as a human being.

In my experience, actively listening to employees talk about their everyday struggles was powerful, eye-opening, and often heart wrenching. Your responsibility as a leader is to be courageous, take a stand, be an ally and build the safe space people need to open-up and succeed.

2. Turn to Media

I’m most passionate about DEI. In the last year I feel fortunate to be able to talk more on this topic than I have in my entire career. I don’t claim to be an expert and I have a lot to learn. But what I learned so far this year is that you have to educate yourself, form an opinion, and start having conversations about topics that people are fearful of to discuss. Saying nothing doesn’t help change the situation. Educating yourself is a path towards a growth mindset. There are incredible books, podcasts, movies and documentaries to educate yourself on racial, gender or social justice issues. Here are some resources that will open your eyes and heart:

The facts portrayed encourage deep introspection and discussion and provide indisputable insight into things that have happened and continue to happen in our society. Being familiar with these stories helps me relate, be more aware and respond or act within my own work and community more effectively.

3. Get Involved

Getting involved can provide added reward. For example, you can volunteer at a nonprofit — many of which have seen a decrease in volunteerism due to the pandemic. Another way to get involved is in mentoring someone in a less fortunate situation than you, take ally training, or encourage your organization to support an internship for students that are under-resourced or first generation.

4. Take Care of Yourself

That old advice about putting on your own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else is incredibly relevant to managers during extreme challenges. It’s hard to show up and be present for your team if you’re not at your best, so look after your own well-being. If you show your employees you are taking care of yourself they will follow your footsteps.


In the New Normal, Empathy and Compassion Start With You

As we continue to move forward past the pandemic, we’ll all have to face a new normal. Companies that don’t embrace a hybrid or long-term solution for WFH probably will have a hard time retaining employees.

On a positive note, with increased awareness around empathy and compassion, we’ll likely see a range of impactful changes as well. Employees are learning to speak up about concerns more, and employers likely will not be as tolerant as they once were to bullies in the workplace. Benefits such as coaching will be the norm, and employers will add digital therapeutics to help with family healthcare, stress reduction, and other wellness initiatives. Workers will prioritize time off for parental leave, PTO, and flexibility in remote working, along with programs that address the whole person.

Given the shifts that the pandemic has put into motion, it’s becoming increasingly clear that companies who consider their employees’ mental, emotional, physical, and financial well-being will be the ones who succeed.

Take note: that consideration begins on an individual level. Now is the time to reflect on your own leadership and take inventory of how you show up and what energy you can create. Be brave enough to step out of what you’re used to doing. Listen and act with heart. Your employees are looking for you to — and they’ll only stay if you do.

Kathy Jeffery
Executive Author

Chief People Officer, Pear Therapeutics

Kathy Jeffery is an empathetic and results-driven leader of people and culture, leadership learning, DEI, health & wellness, and HR technology. view profile


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