Jul 15th, 2020

Q&A: Nadine Shehaiber on Empathetic Leadership During COVID-19

Editor's note: This article is part of our ongoing series about how to support wellness at work during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

As COVID-19 has compelled executives to reimagine the workplace, empathy has become an increasingly important feature of strong leadership. Professionals around the world are facing unprecedented hardship at work and at home. Given the scale of the crisis, it’s imperative for leaders to take an active, compassionate role in caring for their team members.

Leading from the head alone is deeply ineffective right now. In the middle of this intense uncertainty, we need to connect emotionally with those experiencing the disruptions of this period.

One peer-reviewed study conducted in China found that just over 10% of respondents exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while returning to work after COVID-19 shutdowns. For many professionals, stepping back into the office is a stressful change, on the heels of the immense upheaval caused by the pandemic.

This crisis offers leaders unprecedented opportunities to support the mental health and wellness of team members. By empathizing with professionals as humans first — and demonstrating care with every action — leaders can foster a culture of trust, while boosting their resiliency.

We sat down with Nadine Shehaiber, EQ Office’s Head Culture & Talent Strategy Officer, to hear her perspective on the power of empathy and emotional intelligence in leadership:

PlaceLab: In what ways has COVID-19 changed the way we interact with each other at work?

COVID-19 has been a destructive force in people’s lives. In addition to the devastation it’s caused around the globe, it’s also taken away the face-to-face support that everyone would usually enjoy at work and in their communities. In-person connections are where empathy lives. When you can see someone in person, and hear their voice, it’s easier to tell whether something is wrong.

People are now relying solely on screen time for the support they need. As a leader, it’s easy to miss what’s going on beyond the online interaction, and making the emotional connection can be more difficult.

Creativity and innovation also rely on in-person connection. Given the current constraints, team members are missing the cultural benefits of working in an office. They miss the diversity of thought.

At the same time, we are also seeing our colleagues’ humanity with more clarity. On video chat, we can catch a glimpse of people in their homes and their everyday life. This can give us more awareness of and empathy for their lives outside work.

PlaceLab: What is the most empathetic way for leaders to lead right now?

At EQ, we define empathetic leadership as embodying genuine concern for others and acting on intrinsic motivation to help people thrive. Because fear is running high, and there’s so much uncertainty, empathetic leadership is vital. If leaders don’t care about people in a time of crisis, how can team members trust them during normal times?

Some questions I ask leaders to consider: How would you take care of someone in your home? If someone you loved were feeling this type of fear, what would you do? How would you address their needs? Why does that mindset suddenly change when you think of someone on your team? At the end of the day, we are all human and have the same need for security and safety. We want to bring that humanity into our workplace.

Leading from the head alone is deeply ineffective right now. In the middle of this intense uncertainty, we need to connect emotionally with those who are experiencing the disruptions of this period. We need to address their unspoken concerns and offer our professionals consistent opportunities to share their feelings, concerns and ideas on what we can do to make them more comfortable.

Many companies are acting as if work is business as usual, transposed into a digital context. That approach cannot account for the fact that people are dealing with many different issues, including childcare challenges, transportation, fear of losing their jobs, the threat of illness and the need to support at-risk populations. As a result, we can’t expect team members to act as if it really is business as usual — and we can’t act that way, either.

Team members need to feel that their leaders are working on customizable solutions that bring each individual a sense of comfort in this new normal.

PlaceLab: Is wellness today more important than ever?

Wellness used to be a check-the-box aspect of a corporate culture. It was about particular benefits or programs: A company might bring in a yoga instructor or give away healthy snacks. That’s not a holistic approach to well-being. At EQ, we believe well-being encompasses mind, body and purpose

If you reflect on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wellness is the first thing that’s affected by COVID-19. Making sure that team members feel safe — and that they’re being heard — is paramount. Team members need to feel that their leaders are working on customizable solutions that bring each individual a sense of comfort in this new normal. Leaders should also tie safety and well-being into their purpose as an organization, establishing this as a rallying point.

PlaceLab: On a practical level, which wellness and mental health resources would you suggest that leaders offer professionals?

Companies need an adaptable, personalized approach to supporting well-being and mental health. For example, at EQ, we gave all our team members free access to the meditation app Headspace and developed a comprehensive list of free well-being resources. This includes mental health support, counselors on site, doctors on demand, a list of podcasts, and e-learning resources on mindfulness and resiliency.

We brought in guest speakers on Zoom, and we’ve created an internal program focused on mind, body and purpose. EQ gives team members mindfulness days when they’re not required to attend meetings over phone or video, as well as half-days on Friday every other week during the summer. Most of all, we’re approaching every situation with a higher level of care and kindness.

PlaceLab: How important is it for leaders to embody the wellness practices that they’re recommending their team members follow?

Workplace culture is set by leaders, and they need to model positive behavior. People follow what they see. If you’re a leader who is preaching all of these principles but not practicing them, you’re wasting your time. As leaders, we have a responsibility to exemplify the behavior we want to see in our culture.

Leaders can’t help anyone else if they’re depleted of their energy. They may think they’re being effective, but they are doing more harm than good if they’re not caring for themselves. Taking small breaks to re-energize is critical for operating at the highest level, and that is necessary for the situation we’re in. Don’t burn out trying to become the hero.

PlaceLab: What’s the best approach for communicating during the return to work?

Leaders need to create solutions that address needs in a human way. Our team at EQ is having biweekly, all-hands calls, where team members have a platform to talk about their concerns. Make sure to include all the information about reopenings and safety precautions in a toolkit, right down to the plans that you have in place for cleaning the offices.

At EQ, we sent out surveys asking team members how they felt about returning to work. Our leaders are taking those survey results and are calling every single person. We’re checking in on how they’re doing and how they’re feeling, as well as asking them how we can support them. We’re listening to what an ideal return-to-work scenario looks like for them and coming up with personalized plans based on many factors, including their responsibilities at home.

Place Lab: What are some resources for deeper learning that you would suggest for leaders?

To learn about EQ Office's empathetic approach to returning to the workplace, view our workplace cultural considerations below.

EQ Workplace Re-entry Culture Checklist