Filling Your Tank: 6 Tips for Coping as COVID Continues

By Dana Borchert, Ph.D. and Michelle Johnson

In the early days of COVID-19, leaders in healthcare saw their hospitals and facilities in the grips of the pandemic while also dealing with issues ranging from furloughing employees to figuring out a financial path forward. They were in constant crisis mode, working on total adrenaline.

Now more than six months into the crisis, we find that most executives have overcome their initial fears, anxieties and adrenaline rush. The focus is less on how to stay calm and more on how to connect with others, as most leaders, and most teams, are working remotely and collaborating virtually. As the pandemic has persisted, executives are finding themselves losing touch with others, and with what led them to healthcare in the first place.

What can executives do to overcome the dog days of the ongoing pandemic? We offer the following advice:

  1. Maintain self-care. Healthy personal habits – good eating, sleep, meditation, hobbies – are things that fall by the wayside when executives are overwhelmed. You can’t be a strong and effective executive leader if you are not taking good care of yourself. You can’t be a resource for others if your tank is empty. In fact, you may be a liability if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Without continued self-care, executives may be headed for a burnout spiral.
  2. Stay connected with colleagues. COVID-19 has created long-distance relationships between leaders and their teams. This takes its toll. Executives need to be making authentic and valuable connections. Recent research on resilience has illustrated that people who have strong social connections and networks they can call on when in need are more resilient during crisis. We recommend that, in addition to 20-person Zoom work sessions, try 30-minute coffee chats with small groups. Create a reason to have meaningful connections in your work relationships such as discussions on relevant podcasts, book clubs and other hot topics.
  3. Take a different perspective. Researchers have repeatedly illustrated that empathetic leaders are better able to navigate crisis. Teams need it, but so do the executives who lead them. Fortunately, COVID has caused an uptick in empathy. There’s an urgency around seeing the world from someone else’s perspective and genuinely caring. A lot of leaders are having the same issues that their teams have had, so their experiences are relatable. It is important for leaders to continue to put themselves in the shoes of their colleagues and to be vulnerable enough with their teams so that others can see their perspectives, too.
  4. Take time to reflect. We have heard from executives who are ready to throw in the towel, to leave their positions or even healthcare altogether. We like to remind them that this is a great time to reflect and refocus on what really matters. Executives who re-evaluate their core values, motivators and guiding beliefs are often more committed and engaged in their work. It is common for a busy leader to get sucked into the day-to-day of the crisis, which can pull them away from answering, “Why am I here?” or “What am I contributing?” Most executives come full circle. Once they reflect on their work and what is important to them, they realize what brought them to the organization in the first place and feel even more engaged.
  5. Manage your thoughts. Many healthcare executives are plagued by guilt: some have had to furlough employees; others are working comfortably from home while their colleagues who are care providers are “in the trenches” in hospitals and facilities. Clearly, our inner thoughts and dialogue have power over how we behave. It is important for leaders to manage their brains to avoid cognitive overload and unhealthy thinking. Leaders must assure themselves that they’re making a difference in the work they do. Small changes can make a big difference. For example, instead of saying, “Why is this happening?” rephrase to, “What is this teaching me?”
  6. Get innovative. Many executives still feel frozen by the crisis, unable to take risks that may lead to serious consequences. As the pandemic continues, leaders should look for ways of taking chances and moving ahead that might not have been possible a few months ago. Life cannot stop. Yes, it will look different. Leaders should take this opportunity to get creative and innovate.

One final piece of advice for executives who are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic? “Forgive yourself.” The goal for leaders during COVID-19 is not to conquer it, but to endure it. If all you do is survive, awesome.

Dana Borchert, Ph.D., is a business psychologist and vice president for CMA. Michelle Johnson is a senior partner in WittKieffer’s Healthcare Practice.

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