Age-old advice for stressed caregivers typically shared by concerned friends and relatives is ‘take care of yourself first or you won’t have anything left for others.’ With or without the advice, many caregivers continue to selflessly do for others at the expense of their own health and well-being because it is in their DNA.
The workplace is no exception, especially for workers in leadership roles who have supported the emotional and physical needs of their staff nonstop for two years. Many leaders, from CEOs to frontline managers, have not only dealt with their own issues as a result of the pandemic, but also those of their teams, leaving them exhausted and suffering from compassion fatigue because they failed to follow their own advice.
Below are four ways leaders can manage compassion fatigue.
Lead by example
Leaders have spent countless time promoting company policies, programs and benefits that help employees deal with increased levels of stress in their professional and personal lives, which can have an impact on mental health and well-being. One of the first things leaders should do is set an example by utilizing the programs themselves to address compassion fatigue. Practicing what they preach not only supports the mental well-being of leaders, but it also demonstrates a culture that cares about mental health issues. Taking the initiative can encourage peers and others to take advantage of a company’s employee-support mechanisms.
Take time off
There are numerous reasons why many leaders are hesitant about taking time off, but the most common reasons are fear of being viewed as dispensable or worry that work will not get completed. It is not unusual for leaders to carry over weeks of PTO, or even lose it completely rather than use it. Disconnecting from work by taking time off is critical for renewal and emotional health that leads to rejuvenated leaders who are highly engaged and more motivated to lead their teams. While taking time off benefits leaders, it also builds confidence in staff because they recognize the trust that has been placed in them while the boss is gone.
Reach out to HR
Based on the widespread occurrence of compassion fatigue, chances are other leaders are experiencing the same feelings. Reaching out to HR can help get the ball rolling for additional programs designed to support leaders. For example, hosting lunch-and-learn sessions with medical professionals for advice, offering training sessions that cover relaxation methods, and creating a buddy system that pairs leaders for increased connections and mutual support. When leaders throughout the company realize they are not alone, they will feel more comfortable seeking help and participating in company-sponsored programs.
Develop a peer-to-peer accountability system
For higher-level executives who report directly to busy CEOs or a board of directors, there are fewer levels of oversight to address compassion fatigue. In fact, these may be the very individuals in most need of support. Executive teams should develop peer-to-peer accountability systems to support each other via biweekly mental health check-up chats, periodic PTO usage updates, quarterly retreats with dedicated downtime to relax, and weekly walking meetings. When executive teams create accountability systems, it helps to support mental health and well-being, build greater trust, and nurture stronger relationships that position leaders to better serve the organization.
It is no surprise that most leaders are so preoccupied with the health/well-being and engagement of their teams, they forget the steps necessary to take care of themselves. Leaders who embrace a popular philosophy – as go the leaders, so goes the culture and the company – should feel compelled to combat compassion fatigue by leading by example, taking time off, reaching out to HR and developing peer-to-peer accountability systems, putting their best selves forward to serve the needs of their teams and organization.
Sherry Waters is vice president of field operations for Houston-based Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.