Health care workers have been working in extended crisis mode for nearly a year—and that strain has created a new type of exhaustion that leaders must find a way to balance, Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg writes for Harvard Business Review. She shares three tips on ways leaders can "find the mental strength to lead through the last mile" of the pandemic.
A new kind of exhaustion
"It feels like the whole world is tired," Wedell-Wedellsborg, who runs a business psychologist practice, writes. Whether you call it "'pandemic fatigue,' 'mental fog,' work/life blur,' 'extended vacuum,' [or] an 'endless wait,'" people are feeling the mental toll of working in crisis mode for months on end.
While the initial phase of the pandemic sparked feelings of adrenaline, "fighting spirit," and other "skin-deep" response mechanisms, the current phase requires a new type of resilience that relies heavily on "perseverance, endurance, and even defiance against the randomness, gloom, and burden of the pandemic," Wedell-Wedellsborg writes.
For leaders, this means adopting a new approach to management, one that identifies "your biggest challenges over the next year and then tap[s] the psychological stamina you and your team needs to get there," Wedell-Wedellsborg writes. If that seems like a tall order after months of strain, Wedell-Wedellsborg outlines three key steps leaders can take to mobilize their exhausted teams:
- Distinguish between urgency and importance
There's a temptation during crisis, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes, to focus heavily on what demands your urgent attention and then rest, putting off long-term challenges for another day. But you have to avoid that temptation, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes, because although "rest is vital outside of the workday, inactivity during it can backfire."
Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests combating this temptation by brainstorming how you and your team can prepare now to "emerge from the crisis a stronger company." One way to think of it, she writes, is "to ask yourself and your colleagues whether you are in fact fully prepared for the feeding frenzy that will inevitably kick off in the wake of the vaccine. Companies will clamor to win back lost business and reclaim lost customers," meaning that for many organizations, "dealing with the aftermath will be just as intense as dealing with the crisis."
- Find a balance between compassion and 'containment'
Getting your team galvanized to take action "requires both compassion and containment," Wedell-Wedellsborg writes.
As Wedell-Wedellsborg explains, compassion is a necessity perhaps now more than ever because "[a]t this point in the crisis, the conditions that breed depression, loneliness, and anxiety are present," including health concerns and rapidly shifting priorities. As a result, "your employees need more warmth and comfort than they might have prior to the pandemic," she writes.
Leaders can put this compassion into practice by sharing their own struggles and discomforts, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes, as well as acknowledging your employees' "personal contributions and human qualities." Instill "the fundamental feeling that people are good enough, that they have earned their place, and that their worth is not just a function of their actions and results, but of who they are," Wedell-Wedellsborg writes.
On the flipside, however, leaders must balance their compassion with "containment," which is "'the ability to observe and absorb what is going on around you, but to provide a sense of stability,'" she notes. And that means there must be a limit to your compassion. She explains, "[O]nce you lift people (or yourself) up, the goal is not pampering," but rather about "using your connection to catch a second wind."
So take "a good look at the battles that will meet you next year," Wedell-Wedellsborg writes, and then channel your team's feelings of "defiance, anger, fear, and frustration"—feelings we typically suppress at work—and "go into fight mode." As she puts it, "You want people to say 'enough is enough' and rise to fight the gloom" of the pandemic.
- Get people energized—every day
"As we enter the last stretch" of the pandemic, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes, "the greatest challenge for leaders may be to sustain energy in themselves and their teams." And at this stage of the pandemic—when we are past the urgency of the start, but we don't yet know how long it will take to reach the finish line—"feel-good language like 'we need to pull together' or 'we will get through this'" isn't going to cut it. People need "specific and actionable communication—what to do now to pull together and how to get through it."
This may look different for every team, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes; some teams may respond to breaking up long-term projects into short sprints, sharing colleagues' success stories, trimming down Zoom meetings, fostering honest feedback, or some other innovative approach—but the key is to make a point of energizing your team every day.
Ultimately, leading an emotionally exhausted team when you yourself may feel—as one CEO told Wedell-Wedellsborg—"'emotionally amputated'" boils down to resilience, the ability to view setbacks as temporary obstacles that "enable us to act" rather than permanent roadblocks that "leav[e] us with little or no power to act." She writes, "Managing your own mind and deciding to take charge of your destiny (and helping others do the same) is where you find mental strength for the last mile" (Wedell-Wedellsborg, Harvard Business Review, 12/15/20).