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In the latest edition of “Discussions on Leadership,” Dr. Burks shares some insights on how to support teammates through the current surge in COVID patients.

Dear Colleagues,

In 2016, researchers ran more than 1,300 works of literature through a computer program meant to analyze the sentiment of the works. The team found that more than 1,000 of the stories fit into six narrative arcs. There is rags to riches – and riches to rags – fall then rise – and the opposite – and then more complex tales where the fortunes of the main characters fall, rise, then fall or rise, fall, and ultimately rise again in the end.

With COVID-19, we have fallen, risen and fallen again more times than any of us care to count. By now, I’m sure you’re just ready for the story to be over, and frankly, I am too. However, as we have seen over the last several weeks the plot can change quickly, forcing us as leaders to adapt as well.

The scope of what we have faced together in the last year and a half can sometimes seem too big to comprehend. When we tell the stories of our work during the COVID-19 pandemic in the future, though, what we will remember are the people we worked alongside, the new roles we stepped into, the initiatives we led that we would have never imagined only a short time ago. We will recall the bonds formed with colleagues and the problems we solved. We will remember the tragedy and the many we lost to the virus.

What we have faced from mid-July to now, the rapid increase of hospitalizations, fueled by the Delta variant and accelerated by vaccine hesitancy, just feels different from other moments during the pandemic. All of us are facing the stress of this rapid surge, fighting through exhaustion, and doing all of this while stretched thin due to the amount of turnover experienced through this year.

Early on, the community rallied around us with an outpouring of support. Later, the roll out of safe and effective vaccines provided a shot of hope that the pandemic may be coming under control. The surge we have seen over the last several weeks, however, has eroded that optimism and left many feeling hopeless or even angry. Instead of unity around our mission, we risk negativity uniting our teams in the current moment.

There is a scene in one of my favorite shows, Ted Lasso, when the team threatens to come apart over the return of a former player who had been a terrible teammate. Sensing the discord, the ever-optimistic Coach Lasso goes with a different approach, screaming and berating his players throughout practice, hoping they will bond over their frustration with him and forget the issues they have with their teammate. It is a funny scene and a reflection of the lengths that we will go to in order to get the best out of those we work with. But, I am pretty sure it isn’t the right way to address the issues.

Instead, in this moment, I hope you can build connections by validating the concerns of your teammates. This is a profoundly difficult moment. It is frustrating and isolating in healthcare right now as we face more sickness and suffering while other parts of society press on as if the pandemic is over. Despite that, we have a vital mission and a commitment to serve the people of our state. Emphasizing the ‘why’ and rebuilding that connection is a useful reminder of why we do what we do, even through difficult circumstances.

This is a time for focusing on our bonds as people – our shared humanity. If you find yourself concerned about a specific member of your team, reach out to them. Make sure they know you care for them as an individual. Give them space to express their concerns and share what is affecting them. While this may come to your attention due to work that doesn’t meet their usual standards, lead the conversation asking about them, making sure they know you are concerned for them as a person, not worried simply about their work output. I would encourage other team members to do the same.

Another key trait is the ability to understand our limitations. The experiences of the last year have traumatized many teammates. We know there are higher than normal rates of depression and anxiety. As we have these key conversations, be direct when the concerns extend to the point that you would recommend someone accessing further resources. Be open about this within your teams and continue to promote our extensive well-being resources.

Advocating for the value of these resources can help to eliminate some of the stigma that persists around seeking help.
The writer and theologian, David Augsburger once said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” As I mentioned, this is an isolating moment for many. Showing genuine concern, asking the right questions, and listening deeply can make an immense difference.

Another great quote on this subject comes from consultant and motivational speaker Ken Blanchard, who said, “When I ask people to talk about the best boss they ever had, they always mention one quality: Listening!”

For me, the greatest virtue of an empathetic leader is being able to listen to the problems and concerns of others and respond with understanding of how they would like to be treated or in a way that respects their individuality, not just sharing how you might personally solve the problem if you were in their position.

Years from now, we will be characters in each other’s stories of this time. We will remember those we stood beside as we solved problems that seemed truly impossible. We will remember those who helped us to rise from the many low points of this pandemic. I hope that we can all be that for those we work alongside.