Leadership & Professional Development

For leaders, a trying holiday season is no time for compassion fatigue

December 16, 2020 12:09 am

Jill Geisler

As national and global events add to the stress that many already feel during the holidays, leaders can do their part to give team members reason to celebrate.

Each holiday season, our greetings traditionally begin with the words “Happy” and “Merry.” We look forward to gatherings, gift-giving and good cheer.

But the pandemic and other factors are unwanted guests casting ugly shadows over sunny greetings and festive rituals. Our most common salutations these days are “How are you doing in these times?” “Is your family OK?” “How is the virus affecting your holiday plans?”

Those are important questions — if you truly care about the answers.

COVID-19 and flu concerns, isolation, stress, financial challenges and lingering post-election political and social divisions may be weighing heavily on people. Each person on your team has a different story.

There’s never been a more important time for empathy. The “dark winter” that President-elect Joe Biden described both before and after the election will be a test for leaders, especially those who have been working for months to be accommodating and adaptive on behalf of their teams.

Now is not the time for compassion fatigue, which happens when good people become emotionally overwhelmed by caring for others. It’s a time for leaders to remain resilient and committed to helping people get through this challenge.

Looking for signs that team members are struggling

As we approach the holidays, leaders should watch for warning signs of stress and dysfunction. Consider these questions:

  • Are individuals losing focus? Are normally reliable people starting to drop the ball?
  • Is absenteeism increasing? Are people missing scheduled meetings and deadlines?
  • Are people becoming more abrupt with each other? Are you mediating more conflicts?
  • Are teams becoming silos? Are people beginning to assume the worst in others, especially those on other teams?

Equally important as what you observe is what you may be missing. Not every person working through a challenge makes it clear to others. Their stoicism may keep you from knowing their circumstances and helping them.

That’s why it’s important for leaders to step up this holiday season and offer a greeting of another kind — a hopeful, helpful greeting.

5 ways to get the message right

Make a special point to tell your team, collectively and individually, how you’ll all move forward. I suggest you meet everyone at the intersection of reality and optimism.

Specifically, consider the following approaches:

1. Let them know this season can bring both joys and burdens to people, and that your goal is to help protect and amplify their joys and ease their burdens.

2. Tell them it’s more important than ever to take good care of each other and to assume others have good intentions even when things go awry.

3. Remind them how much you appreciate their professionalism and how they’ve performed in the face of changes and challenges. Be as specific as you can about the organization’s strengths and successes.

4. Advise that strength is important, but you don’t expect people to be superheroes and you recognize there’s no shame if they step back or ease up to take care of themselves. Encourage them to tap into employee assistance programs if needed.

5. Ask them to think beyond this moment. Describe your vision for where your organization and your team will be this time next year.

Ensuring employees feel appreciated amid turmoil

Your words matter. Your actions prove you mean them. Don’t miss an opportunity to show people their value to you.

In some cases, it might mean providing schedule accommodations or rethinking your approach to employee evaluations, so those who have had to make changes in their work during the pandemic don’t face setbacks. A recent McKinsey study finds that the pandemic is having a disproportionately negative effect on women in the workplace, and if companies aren’t careful, they will lose valuable employees.

Acts of gratitude matter. If your budget permits, be creative in your holiday gifts. Don’t be afraid to solicit a few gift suggestions from the people on your team who always seem to have their finger on the emotional pulse of others.

If your budget is restricted, you still have a powerful option: a personal note of thanks. 

Research says we underestimate the positive impact of such messages on recipients. Remember that your specificity is the key to your sincerity. A generic note pales in comparison to a message that describes what the employee has done, always does or avoids doing, and how much that person matters. Notes cost you nothing but can be priceless gifts alone or in combination with other tokens of appreciation.

Keeping your own wellness top of mind

As you look out for the welfare of your team members, promise me you’ll also take good care of yourself. Shouldering responsibility for the well-being of others is a heavy burden.

While you are resilient, you’re also human. Don’t hesitate to delegate. Take meaningful breaks. Meditate. Exercise.  Follow (and share) this bit of expert advice

“During this year of collective suffering, we need each other more than ever. Expressing empathy in small ways, while also extending kindness toward ourselves, can once again make helping other people feel like a joy, instead of a burden. And cultivating joy in your life can make any burden you’re carrying feel lighter, too.”

We’ll get through this season together, doing all we can to nurture the “Happy” and the “Merry” as we lead the way.


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