Compassion in a Time of Crisis


Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

Compassion is a must in times of crisis.

No matter where you work or what you do, you and everyone you know has been impacted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually by the novel Coronavirus known as Covid-19. If you are a leader or manager in your organization or community, you are likely feeling especially weighed down by the multiple demands to maintain productivity and morale in the midst of the morass of a global pandemic and economic disaster.

Our brains are fundamentally hard-wired to protect us from anything we perceive as a threat. In light of a situation that triggers the “threat” response, our limbic system goes into overdrive and we literally stop thinking rationally. In normal situations, we experience stress responses that spike the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our body, but then return those levels to normal.

However, in situations where we are constantly on high alert and stressed for prolonged periods of time, the unregulated levels of cortisol and adrenaline have an immense negative impact on our entire body: it can lead to a compromised immune system, chronic anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, and memory and concentration problems.

The constant barrage of news and conversations related to the crisis are likely wreaking havoc on everyone’s nerves. Ironically, the only way to slow the spreading of the virus, self-isolation and physical distancing, also contributes to high levels of stress.

Many parents have to try to balance working from home and teaching their kids. Small business owners (like myself) are wondering how and if we will recoup the financial loss. Even more dire, a large portion of our society is going to suffer financially as layoffs and furloughs begin to rise. People who live paycheck to paycheck are beginning to wonder how they and their families will survive. Those with limited or no health insurance will suffer. Those who are caretakers for aging or ill family members fear that any exposure to the virus could be the death knell for their loved ones. People with heightened potential for exposure like health care practitioners have to balance the concern over taking care of their patients and not exposing their own loved ones.

And over the coming months, it is inevitable that someone you know and care about will experience incredible grief and loss.

So…knowing that this crisis is just not yet even at its apex, what can leaders do to boost their own and others’ morale and productivity amidst this turbulent time?

  1. Build and maintain a sense of community

Research shows that loneliness and isolation have the same health consequences as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Be vigilant about engaging in and encouraging others to engage in prosocial behaviors to combat the inevitable loneliness people experience when forced into isolation. Essentially, connect, reach out. Exchange greetings, check in with one another, organize virtual social events to see how people are doing. The richer the communication channel you can use, the better the exchange. For instance, video teleconferencing applications like Zoom or Google Hangouts are more effective for establishing a sense of togetherness than just a teleconference. But a teleconference is better than emails or texts. Use a combination of methods to maintain connection, but strive for as much face time as possible.

  1. Reinforce a common purpose

You and your team will be more capable of staying focused when there is a clearly stated common goal or mission that is repeated and reinforced throughout the time of turmoil. When people feel that their work has meaning, they are more likely to get and stay engaged even in tough times. Share stories that illustrate how your team is not only supporting the organization’s mission, but also how your collective efforts may in some way contribute to helping people through the crisis. Encourage team members to share how their tasks and projects are contributing to the common goal.

  1. Over-communicate

In times of uncertainty and ambiguity, always err on the side of more communication and greater transparency. Even if you have no news, share that.  When people feel like they’re in an information vacuum, their anxiety will increase. My daughter’s second grade teacher sent an email to the class the other day simply updating us that he had no new direction for us yet on how to manage “virtual” school for the next few weeks, but assured us the guidelines were coming soon and he would be back in touch in the next day with news. Even though there was no substantial new date in his message, I felt comforted knowing information was coming and he was thinking about us and our needs. Do that with your team. In the absence of new information, simply communicating that you’re working on it and will keep them posted might be all they need to stay sane!

We can’t predict all that will happen over the next few months, but I think we can foresee is that things will get even more challenging in a lot of ways. Our call to action as leaders is to lean fully into our compassion for others. Let’s all commit to being vulnerable with one another in how we’re feeling, to try to create some normalcy and laughter and gratitude.

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