Supporting Your Employees During Hard Times: A Manager's Guide

Employees seated around a table
In this section:

This expertise is provided by the UCSF Cope and Cope Columbia Programs.

Leaders and managers across the world have struggled to adjust to the “new normal” of COVID-19 and other disasters, and the impact of those events on their workforce. They recognize that everyone is exhausted after more than a year of struggling. For those who work remotely, additional stress is now being caused by concerns about when and how their re-entry will look. Given that many children are still unvaccinated, employees are still juggling their work and family responsibilities.

With this in mind, we propose some guidance to help leaders support their employees to manage this stress. We outline guiding principles and then specifics on how to do this well. We hope you find this helpful.

Caring for your workers

  • Anticipatory planning is a healthy coping mechanism! One of the best ways to reduce stress is to prepare in advance. One of the challenging things about COVID-19 has been all of the uncertainty. Talk about how you hope changes will go and ask about people’s concerns and hopes.
  • Understand your employees' needs. Create a couple of formats to gather information—consider surveys, focus groups, anonymous feedback boxes, and 1:1 sessions to make sure you have a pulse and your workers. Do not assume that most workers will communicate their needs of their own accord. This will greatly aid in your ability to communicate effectively by ensuring that you are addressing the issues most pressing to your workers.
  • Communicate consistently and clearly. Communications can, and should, be done through regular meetings, written communications, and disseminating recordings of meetings. We know that folks often need to hear new information more than once and everyone learns differently.
  • Box 1

    Create space to understand the sources of stress
    Carve out time in your meetings to ask your staff directly about the stress they are experiencing. Listen actively and with compassion. Saying things such as, "I hear you are concerned about x. That makes total sense.” can go a long way.
    Work together on solutions and direct to resources
    Be open and non-defensive to critiques your staff may have on how you or the university is adding to their stress. Prioritize addressing these critiques and direct your staff to available resources. Resources specific to UCSF employees can be found throughout this website.
    Talk about wellness during regularly scheduled meetings. Use regular meetings to build staff support and resilience. Explain that well-being is on a continuum from easily managing life stressors to feeling stressed and burned out and all the way to needing professional help. Communicate to your employees that you know that at any point they can be anywhere on this continuum and that you want to provide support wherever they are and ensure they have access to the resources that they need. Ideally, solicit hearing their concerns, hopes, and ideas. Box 1 has a guide for how you might structure monthly meetings.
  • Incorporate wellness practices into regular meetings. Try starting by watching a video that teaches compassion or mindful breathing. Ask if others want to choose a video for the next meeting.
  • Destigmatize mental health. Now that mental health issues are so common, this is an opportunity to talk openly and reduce the shame and guilt associated with seeking help.You can point to UCSF's Faces of Ability Campaign or reference the stark increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic. You can even consider sharing your own experiences of how you have needed to improve your own coping abilities to manage stress.
  • Advocate for flexibility. One important lesson from this experience is that remote work can be just as productive—if not more so in some cases—than in-person work. Therefore, if there are different type of work available (in-person, hybrid, fully remote), create space to explore creative ideas about this. Understand your employees' preferences regarding the extent of remote vs. in-person work, and consider flexible models that accommodate your teams' differing needs, as well as the best way to get the work done. If employees feel both understood as individuals and respected as professionals, they are more likely to be productive and positive team members.
  • Advocate for feasible, sustainable jobs and policies to support employees. With pandemic-related hiring freezes, financial pressures, pandemic fatigue and constant stress, many jobs now feel simply untenable for workers. This is a good time to step back and really look at what we are asking our workers to do. Consider a Work Design for Health approach. Research consistently demonstrates that happy, healthy workers in “doable” jobs are more productive with less costly turnover. You may need to communicate to your leadership that additional resources are needed to appropriately meet expectations for your department.
  • Spread positivity and express gratitude. Simple and genuine expressions of gratitude toward staff are very important. Leaders should recognize and thank individuals and teams for the work they are doing during regular weekly meetings.
  • Recognize stress and provide support. As managers, we need to recognize that staff have limits. They are under incredible stress at work and at home. Staff should be encouraged to care for themselves and get good sleep, drink water, and exercise. During weekly meetings, managers should talk about the opportunity to seek more support (e.g., “Feeling stressed is not a sign of weakness, it is normal in these circumstances. I want to share some resources that might help our team to become stronger.”). If your department or division would like a monthly hour-long well-being town hall or resilience small group meeting, the UCSF Cope team has a structured do-it-yourself guide and can discuss these services with you. You may also think about having individual check-ins with staff whose behavior has changed so you can review these support resources with them.
  • Recognize differences among your employees. Several studies have identified particularly vulnerable populations to psychological impacts from COVID-19. These include frontline providers, women, nurses, people with children at home, and people early in their career.

Creating structural changes to promote well-being

Most employees are feeling exhausted, and often our work itself is a major contributor to those feelings. Here are some suggestions:

  • Manager talking to employees
    Slow and steady. Make sure that any new expectations for in-person work are communicated well in advance. Consider a transition back to in-person work in stages. This is a process that may take some time to get used to again, and a slow transition can help you identify issues before they become big problems.
  • Transparency is key. Clear, honest communication about safety, how decisions are being made, opportunities for feedback, and any changes to the plan is critical.
  • Reduce Zoom fatigue. Implement policies for people to start meetings 5–10 minutes after the hour (so that meetings are 25 or 50 minutes long) when possible. This is now an official UCSF School of Medicine policy.
  • Provide breaks. Studies have shown that having frequent short breaks can help promote well-being. This break time is especially needed given all the “Zoom fatigue” being reported. Consider reducing hour-long meetings to 50-minutes and encourage your staff to take breaks during the day.
  • Take a vacation. Encourage employees who have not taken a vacation to take time off from work, even if it is a short vacation. Try to support them in efforts to unhook from work email.
  • Email management. If your email server allows it, set up delayed responses so emails only arrive between 9 a.m.–5 p.m. If you are working at night or on weekends, you can also set individual emails to be sent out during working hours.
  • Implement community building activities (e.g., zoom lunches, coffees, community pods) to reduce isolation. Other teams set up Slack groups. These are important ways to deliver peer support. It is not needed for managers to be at these meetings. In fact, it is better for employees to meet without the managers. Use your best judgment. You might plan a social activity outside or a virtual game show (like trivia or Family Feud in teams).

Caring for yourself

  • Smiling person holding a pen
    Being a leader is still very stressful. Being a leader in health care during a global pandemic can at times feel impossible. We would wager there might have been times in the last year when you considered throwing in the towel—understandably! Therefore, it is critical that you get the support you need as well. Remember to help yourself first. Think about using the resources available to you via UCSF Cope, the UCSF Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, or your health insurance plan. If you can maintain your own well-being, your team will surely reap the benefits. Further, sharing any ways you keep work/life balance or seek mental health support leads to role modeling and destigmatization of mental health challenges.
  • Take time to invigorate yourself as a leader. We cannot think of a time when thoughtful, caring leadership has been more important to our workforce! Put some time on your calendar just to just focus on yourself as a leader. Assess your vision. Reflect on how much time you spend reacting vs. planning and being proactive. Make time to connect with other leaders to gather support. Be realistic about your own job and what you can actually accomplish with your time and resources. Leave this time with some self-compassion and gratitude for what you have been able to manage during the past year given all your challenges.

Additional resources