Leadership During the Recovery

Published: Jun 24, 2021


By: Jennifer Moss

But what should leaders do in the meantime? In a world where exhausted leaders are leading exhausted teams, it’s been a year like no other. With no frame of reference to guide decisions, many were flying blind. It’s therefore not surprising that errors in judgment or mistakes were made along the way.

Despite the desire otherwise, leaders are not impervious. Most are balancing many of the same stressors their people face every day. It has been tough on everyone.

The question now becomes, how can we sustainably lead teams today and in the aftermath of the pandemic?

First, it’s time to stop acting like it’s still an emergency. An emergency, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.” And yet, the pandemic is no longer unforeseen. It is no longer a surprise.

Organizations need to assess whether the stopgap tactics that were put in place in March 2020 still make sense. The toothpaste can’t be forced back into the tube. The future of work is now and there is no turning back.

The first step is to analyze why some leaders handle the storm better than others—why they understand that the rain can’t be stopped, so instead they carry the best umbrella. It most often boils down to psychological fitness.


Psychological fitness—also referred to as emotional intelligence—is the ability to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to the most accurate and unbiased thoughts. It also requires breaking down existing patterns of behavior to experience and display healthier emotions more regularly than negative ones. The concept was originally developed to help military professionals better handle the emotional burdens experienced during combat. We now see it permeating leadership development in all industries and sectors.

To be psychologically fit, however, leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see in their people. That means prioritizing individual self-care—something leaders are notoriously bad at. Of all the times to reconsider that behavior, it would be now. After a year of chronic stress and fatigue, where one’s recovery will enable the recovery of others, self-compassion will be key. Arguably, it’s the only way to mentally get through the next year.

Leading with both self-compassion and empathy means being tuned into your personal needs as well as the needs of the workforce. This requires having more self-awareness, asking questions of others, removing bias, and actively listening, essentially thwarting stress and burnout before it’s too far gone, and having the humility to adjust to the moment. In times of crisis, particularly through this last year, making quick pivots was how many companies survived and then thrived.

For anyone who considers empathy a soft skill, note this: It takes intention, effort, and strength to lead with compassion. It’s worth it, but it is most certainly not easy. Here are a few suggestions to get started.


The word “hygiene,” for most, means cleaning your teeth, taking regular showers, and brushing your hair. These are the usual things done to maintain physical health, so routine they become subconscious activities. And yet, if you stopped doing them, you would feel the effects almost immediately.

In the workplace, there are other types of basic “hygiene” needs that must be met. These needs include salary, work conditions, company policy and administration, supervision, working relationships, status and security, and safety. On the other hand, motivation factors include challenging work, recognition for one’s achievements, responsibility, the opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making, and a sense of importance to the organization.

As a leader, it’s easy to have blind spots toward the status of these basic hygiene requirements inside your organization. But when corporate hygiene is low, people feel it. To determine whether there is healthy organizational hygiene, expect to consistently know answers to the following:

  • Is anyone on the team feeling unsafe at work—either physically or psychologically?
  • Are people paid fairly across all groups, particularly those where pay gaps exist?
  • Does everyone on the team know what they are supposed to be doing right now?
  • Do they know how to do their jobs?
  • How many hours did staff actually work this week (not just what was personally witnessed)?
  • What other external pressures are they dealing with, such as a new baby or a sick family member?
  • Are they battling racism or discrimination?
This abbreviated list suggests the type of questions leaders need to assess in determining whether the organization is meeting employees’ basic hygiene needs. When the root causes of the problems that lead to chronic stress and burnout are identified, then (and only then) can well-being optimization begin.

Leading during a pandemic means there are external forces at play that impact well-being at work, and it poses another unique challenge for leaders this year. But there are still myriad ways to support employees in the workplace despite where the stressors are occurring.


Many people have faced grief in their lifetime, but in the last year, the collective grief was unparalleled. Not since the World Wars and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic has the world gone through so much loss at one moment in time.

In the workplace, grief can cause people to be more disorganized, withdrawn, or anxious. It can also increase “brain fog,” a symptom of chronic stress that can make people feel distracted, fatigued, demotivated, and unclear and increase errors in their work.

Unfortunately, managers can miscalculate these behaviors as performance problems. Ensuring that doesn’t happen requires a better analysis of whether the late arrivals or less than perfect work is atypical. That means digging deeper. Is there something else? Could there be some external stressor that is causing these behaviors? In a global pandemic and beyond, there may be a few potential scenarios to point to. In other words, if it seems obvious, it is.

With the addition of chronic stress and fear of the virus and months of social isolation, mental health is bound to be affected. And yet, my research, published in Harvard Business Review, found that nearly half of respondents don’t believe they can openly talk about mental health at work. As a result, 65% of those people experienced burnout “often or always.”

Tactics to support more open conversations around mental health can include:

Increased check-ins that discuss non-work-related conversations. Ask the following questions:

  • On a scale of 0-100, how would you rate your stress level?
  • What, if any, were some of the barriers you faced this week in reaching your goals?
  • What can I do to make next week easier?
  • You say you’re fine, are you sure? I want to be able to support you if you need it.

Engagement of managers in mental health training. They should know what resources are available to their staff though human resources, employee assistance programs, and other tools that are offered to support mental health.

The end of strict grief policies. It’s foolish to suggest that 48 hours is enough to deal with the death of a loved one and then functionally return to work. Rather, offer employees the space they need to grieve so they can return to work effectively. These actions will increase trust, loyalty, engagement, and retention.

Our global survey of 1,500 respondents across 46 countries also found that only 21% rated their well-being as good during the pandemic and a mere 2% rated their well-being as excellent.

This suggests that a large part of the workforce is suffering. And yet, this is not just a pandemic problem. Stigma around discussing mental health at work is a long-standing issue. Leaders need to make safe spaces now, both virtually and in person, to discuss mental health in a crisis and beyond. To nurture a culture of psychological safety, leaders must learn how to be optimal listeners.


Active listening is a key attribute of empathy. It means having the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand the message, comprehend the information, and respond thoughtfully.

Good listening is key in a pandemic and in the recovery phase. Our research found that when describing poor communication from leadership, respondents felt increased “uncertainty, fear and anxiety.” This would ultimately put them at greater risk of burnout according to further analysis.

The Workforce Institute at Kronos Inc. found that “only a fraction of employees (20%) felt their organization met their needs during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Chris Mullen, PhD, executive director of The Workforce Institute at UKG, stresses that during the pandemic, “instead of looking for trendy perks, companies needed to get back to the foundational needs every employee requires: physical safety, psychological security, job stability, and flexibility.”

The same survey found that nearly a third (32%) of respondents yearned for more communication from leadership during the pandemic—both sooner and more transparently—which is a primary regret for more than a third (35%) of C-level leaders.

Here are suggestions for better communication during a crisis:

  • Communicate the plan often—especially as it changes.
  • Acknowledge and validate uncertainties and share how the organization is protecting physical and psychological safety.
  • Spend more time answering questions than sharing scripted information.
  • Ensure employees can immediately access mental health support and information related to the crisis.

Old rules around reduced hours/flexible hours, or even paid time off, should be thrown out the window. Remember, this is not business as usual. Add more training. Implement more peer-to-peer outreach programs, mental health 101, and manager training for how to deal with conversations related to grief and trauma. Increase check-ins.

When there is empathy, uncertainty is mitigated. With their actions, leaders are saying, “I’ve heard your messages, I am working hard to understand your needs, and I am doing my best to respond thoughtfully.”


When buildings are on fire, people are evacuated. This begs the question, why force people into a space that for them feels unsafe? As the recovery mode begins, it will be important to create hybrid solutions for employees—options that make everyone feel safe.

Workplace experts have long been advocating for more flexible options. When the pandemic struck, it was finally possible to demonstrate that working from home can be equally productive as being in the office. And yet, what if in the past year, the pendulum swung too far to the other side?

In reality, aren’t “work from home forever/only” policies still inflexible? Some people need to go to a physical workspace because they are fueled by those in-person connections. Many respondents to the survey shared how lonely and isolating it’s been to only communicate with their team virtually. To right the pendulum, companies will need to provide employees access to both a remote and an in-person work option.

Fran Katsoudas, executive VP and chief people, policy, and purpose officer at Cisco, agrees that empathy is at the root of strong leadership and healthy cultures.

“We’re a big believer that empathy is a superpower,” Katsoudas shares in an April 2021 interview after a long and stressful year leading through the pandemic. “From a workplace perspective, we’re going to work so hard to help our leaders and teams get proximate to people that are different from themselves and walk alongside them and understand them. We believe that if we do this, we’ll be so much better as a company.”

Some ways Cisco led with empathy first during the pandemic were:

  • Increasing transparency in communication
  • Augmenting employee check-ins at all leadership levels
  • Having more open conversations about challenging topics such as mental health, social justice, and COVID health and safety
  • Enhancing existing flexible work options
  • Providing more access to health experts
  • Putting a bigger focus on campaigns that promote wellbeing, such as “Day for Me,” a day off in May given to all employees and contractors to focus on employee mental health and well-being, and #safetalk. Already well in place before the pandemic, #safetalk offers mental health resources. Another facet of the program, #safespace, connects like-minded employees to network and support one another. Topics include mental health, substance abuse, neurodiverse employees, gender transitioning employees, and parents who have lost children.

With a keen awareness that these are unique times that require unique solutions, the leadership team at Cisco acknowledge there is more work to be done. In response, they continue to analyze novel approaches to support the mental and physical health of a workforce under chronic stress from a pandemic.


In 2020, the workforce was expeditious in adopting safety measures against COVID-19. As the recovery phase begins, the same measures to protect psychological safety must be prioritized equally.

These are important considerations. During a crisis and the subsequent recovery mode, there is going to be a surplus of change. And if leaders lack empathy and emotional flexibility, it will be easy to fall back on old practices that don’t solve new problems. This holds back organizations and teams from flourishing.

In times of crises and recovery, being highly skilled in cognitive empathy is like always having the best umbrella in the storm. That means the workforce is built on trust, healthy and respectful relationships abound, and people feel psychologically safe during times of uncertainty. There is space for grief and mourning and healing. Managers are open and prepared for conversations about mental health, and they actively listen to create more positive actions.

What empathetic leadership isn’t? Soft.


Jennifer Moss is an award-winning journalist, author, and international public speaker. She is a nationally syndicated radio columnist, reporting on topics related to happiness and workplace well-being. She is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in HuffPost, Forbes, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Fortune, and Harvard Business Review. Her forthcoming book is The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.