When Covid-19 hit, new stressors wedged themselves into our everyday lives. Financial strains, familial responsibilities, work upheaval--it all put an immense amount of pressure on the average person.
In short order, another mental health problem came to roost: compassion fatigue.
Early studies focused primarily on health care workers on the frontline of the pandemic, but news outlets and journals began writing about the impact in business. Granted, compassion fatigue wasn't a new thing, but it was drastically amplified by the pandemic.
For business leaders especially, this took a toll: The desire to help, support, and uplift employees both emotionally and financially ratcheted up when the tumult of the pandemic was hitting hard. Many were pressed to give employees more time off, more flex time, permanent remote work status, financial support for child and medical care. Perhaps most strenuous was the need for leaders to step up and become pillars of unfailing strength--never mind their own vulnerabilities or struggles.
Over time, this constant compassion has become draining--debilitating, even. And yet, many at the top feel like they don't have permission to be overwhelmed and step back. Instead, they try to compartmentalize--or disconnect altogether.
The problem is, we often confusing compartmentalizing with suppressing emotion. Instead of drawing boundaries to help us manage the creep of ever-straining emotional responsibilities, we simply ignore the toll compassion fatigue has on us. Inevitably, this leads to constant irritability, lack of focus, or just general numbness.
In order to avoid the onset of compassion fatigue in leadership, I recommend two things I've seen work in my own professional life:
First, before you engage an employee (whatever the communication medium happens to be), understand the scope of the conversation. If they need assistance, ask for a brief summary of their needs and situation before the conversation so you can outline your thoughts in advance. This doesn't obviate the need for a conversation--you can adjust your response as you talk. Too often, however, leaders are caught in the moment with circumstances they feel the need to address, but without time to develop a thoughtful, helpful reply.
Second, make sure you communicate the nature of your support role clearly and often. Having an open-door policy can be helpful, but it's important to set expectations early by communicating to all employees what they can and cannot expect from company leadership, both in normal operations and in a time of crisis. When requests are then made, you can (and should) show compassion for others' circumstances without over-extending yourself.
Perhaps most importantly, be aware of this quiet epidemic--and your own tendencies toward over-extension. Catch compassion fatigue early and it's easier to manage. Catch it late, and you may need time to address your own mental well-being away from work before you come back to office life in any productive way.