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As Covid restrictions dwindle, bosses need to embrace empathy for employees returning to offices

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

There is growing pushback across the corporate sector from staff who have become used to working from home, with all the flexibility, fuel saving and other advantages this entails. Getting people back to the office has to be managed sensitively, but also fairly.

We are living in tough times. We have to acknowledge that. We are a wounded nation, suffering in a way from post-traumatic stress disorder – and that’s now, not our historic legacy of pain and cruelty. The world has emerged from the rigours of lockdown that stress-tested all of us, particularly our businesses, beyond comprehension.

Everything has been weighed, and in many cases found wanting – relationships, balance sheets, political alliances, infrastructure. We have all changed – some for the better, some not so much. The stress though on leaders, particularly business leaders, has rarely been higher.

During the pandemic, in the uncertainty, the emphasis was on leaders being caring and leading a team remotely through a situation for which there wasn’t a playbook or even the benefit of being able to be in the same room with people, look them in the eyes and share your vision for the company with them. At the same time, strong leadership was needed to keep businesses running, keep people safe, keep revenues flowing and keep delivering value to equally stressed clients.

Now, it’s all changed again. It might feel like we are heading back to the old normal, but that old normal is gone forever. It’s like we’ve survived being thrown about in a lifeboat under construction, during a tempest and, finally, having reached shore, we’ve stepped onto the beach. But it’s quicksand. We can see the treeline with its promise of firmer ground ahead, but do we have the energy to get there?

There has been much written about the importance of resilience for people getting through the stresses and strains of lockdown, but what is even more important for managers and business leaders is understanding that the key to their own resilience starts with doing less.

That’s right; we actually have to stop multitasking, stop being empathetic to everyone and start setting boundaries.

Empathy, like charity, starts at home. If you don’t show yourself some empathy, you’re going to suffer from empathy fatigue. This is a real syndrome, empathy burnout from caring. Many business leaders are suffering from this. They’re becoming overwhelmed by the suffering and pain around them, unable to process their own as they reach out to those in need. Eventually they can slip to the empathy dark side – they can’t function, they start isolating, feeling numb and disconnected, obsessively fixating about the suffering of others and blaming themselves.

Just as you would in a rapidly depressurising aircraft, you have to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you start helping others put their masks on. The greatest kind of empathy for the greatest number is actually keeping the business going and ramping it up to profitable – and prosperous – levels. You can’t do that if you’re burnt out. It isn’t empathetic to sacrifice business principles for people’s feelings in the short term.

There is growing pushback at the moment across the corporate sector from staff who have become used to working from home after two-and-a-half years, with all the flexibility, fuel saving and other advantages that this entails. It’s understandable, but working from home in this way might not be viable in companies that are trying to transition back to an environment in which there is no longer a life-threatening situation that overrides this.

Getting people back to the office is something that has to be managed sensitively, but also fairly – and that means listening to people’s complaints carefully and triaging them accordingly. There is a tendency for some people to co-opt and choose to speak for others, as a ruse to make their points more believable and urgent when actually they are just speaking for themselves. It’s a similar tactic to the anti-vax lobby who would go out and find scientific “studies” to fit their own theories and drum up support as to why it was against their human rights to be vaccinated.

The best way to circumvent this is to encourage people to speak in the first person, to use the “I” voice, rather than allowing the loudest and most vocal to appear to speak for everyone. Often the quietest people in the room are just getting on with their lives – and their jobs. When they speak up, it really is time to listen. And we need to make space, in a disciplined manner, for those quieter voices, lest we create a disadvantaged environment for the more introverted and often most thoughtful among us.

In the end though, there’s no getting away from the fact this is a tough time; we are faced with crisis situations in our homes, in our professional lives and in our lives as citizens. Is South Africa a good or bad place? Who knows, objectively? But it’s down to us to make it so. 

What we can say with certainty is that South Africa is a very different place from the one it was before lockdown in March 2020. But we also know with the same degree of certainty that giving into the voice of negativity and cynicism will only make it worse.

Many of us turned to Viktor Frankl for inspiration during the dark days of lockdown. He was a psychotherapist who survived the Nazi death camps and wrote the seminal Man’s Search for Meaning. He gave us the concept of “tragic optimism” – the antithesis of toxic positivity – the belief that in spite of living with the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death all around us, against all evidence to the contrary, life is worth living. I believe it really is worth living, but it doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Leaders are not saviours, nor must they allow others to cast them as such – they are not there to do the living others must do for themselves nor take the projected blame for the existential angst of others… but to continue to relentlessly work to keep the business alive, creating value, providing employment to loyal, long-serving staff and bringing stability and substance.

We have to be empathetic, we have to lead, but the best way we can do this is by keeping true to ourselves, looking after ourselves first and, most importantly, doing our jobs, which is to lead our businesses for the benefit of all. By hiding the true reality of the economy from people, you’re not protecting them, you’re infantilising them.

What you should be doing is making reality your friend, as SAB’s CEO Norman Adami used to say. Make reality your staff’s friend too, let them understand what is needed, so that they can contribute to rebuilding and resetting your company for the better – because they know what’s at stake.

And, above all, stay hopeful. We need to act and action is generally hopeful. Negativity and cynicism just paralyse everyone. And that’s not particularly smart, at all. People are designed to adapt – in action. They can be brilliant at adapting and coping on the fly; look how many coped in moving into lockdown because there was a plan for us to follow with an outcome to aspire to.

Learn to trust them to do the right thing when they know what’s at stake – when they see reality, not some escapist fantasy. That’s practising true empathy – towards yourself and them. DM

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