• Introduction

Supervising During the Pandemic

En Español

The  COVID-19 pandemic has created worldwide uncertainty and is reshaping our lives in a way that leaves many of us feeling powerless and lacking control over the future.

This crisis has caused emotional, physical, and sometimes life-threatening harm to many, which has had an adverse impact on their functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

COVID-19 is a traumatic event for us all.

For individuals who are able to work from home and keep earning an income, the impacts of crisis – the fear, uncertainty, change, new responsibilities and burdens – will likely significantly affect their ability to perform their job duties as they had prior to COVID-19. Extreme and persistent stress diminishes cognitive function and ability to focus.

Some workers face the impossible task of caretaking, or homeschooling, while trying to manage a 40-plus hour work week, with no defined starts or stops to that workday for many. And at the same time, some  workers may be experiencing increased threats of violence in their homes.

Supervisors play an important role in providing leadership, organizing and prioritizing work, and communicating with and supporting employees. During this crisis, supervisors can help reduce the impacts of trauma and lessen employee stress by fostering a sense of safety, power, and control for those under their supervision and for their colleagues, writ large.

Taking care to support the physical and emotional well-being of workers by providing compassionate support, setting realistic expectations that are flexible and responsive to individual needs, being consistent and transparent, sharing resources, and creating opportunities to build and strengthen your workplace community can help reduce the trauma workers may be experiencing and can promote their resilience during this crisis.

Try to center your focus on workers and their needs. Regularly check-in with those you supervise using video conferencing, phone, email, text messaging or whatever form of communication is preferred by the employee. Create space and provide opportunities for workers to share how they are doing and to discuss their needs before turning to work-related issues. Listen with empathy. Everyone’s situations are different and responses to the pandemic and related pressures and responsibilities will be varied. Try not to offer solutions yourself but engage in a conversation to assist your colleague with problem-solving in a way that meets them where they are and allows them to have control over solutions. Be patient, kind, and understanding – we are all trying to cope with an unexpected, unsettling, and challenging situation.

Recognize that job performance may decline, or that traditional job performance measures and expectations may need to be adjusted. Acknowledge that changes in productivity are expected and okay and communicate this to your team. Stress that employees’ physical and emotional needs are the priority. Work collaboratively with employees to reshape workflows to help reduce the burdens and stresses they are experiencing. If you are able, alleviate their fears about job security and expectations as some workers may feel their ability to be productive has diminished.

Predictability can help provide workers with a sense of safety and control. Be consistent but flexible and responsive to rapidly-changing conditions. Communicate changes to policies and practices, explain the impacts, share why changes were made, and most importantly, solicit feedback and adjust policies and practices to reflect that feedback.

Centering physical and mental health and building connection are essential elements of resilience. Highlight and encourage the use of existing workplace supports such as paid leave, “health and well-being days,” or employee assistance programs, as well as local community resources that workers can turn to for help. Create opportunities for peer support and sharing to help break isolation, foster care for one another, and strengthen work relationships. If an employer doesn’t offer paid leave or other workplace supports, consider providing a limited subscription to a meditation or fitness app, or other resource to promote well-being, to employees.

Recognize that some individuals based on their racial or ethnic identity may be coping with additional trauma and stress due to racial animus or disparities in infection, health access, or death rates among indigenous and communities of color due to the legacies of and current systemic and institutional racism. Be mindful of the particularized needs of these communities as they have been especially harmed by this crisis.

Supporting others can be challenging and emotionally taxing. You can’t help others effectively if you are struggling. Lead by example – take time off as needed, shift your own workflow, and acknowledge that this is a difficult time and situation. It’s okay to be vulnerable – this can help those you support feel that they are free to do the same.