Why staff on the frontlines need more – and different – support from leadership right now

by Burl Stamp

Overwhelmed. Exhausted. On-edge. Discouraged.

As the pandemic has worn on longer than most of us imagined, the adjectives to describe our collective emotional state grow increasingly pessimistic. From small children frustrated by virtual learning to the elderly isolated without physical contacts with family, everyone is stressed.

For staff on the frontlines, their stress is exacerbated by the public’s feelings of restlessness, economic uncertainty, frustration, and anger. For leaders, acknowledging that your employees are being verbally abused by some of your customers is the first critical step in better supporting them. Because what they are experiencing has changed, they need your help in developing new coping skills for these unprecedented times.

Following are five strategies leaders can adopt to better support the “heroes” who are, in many ways, becoming the frontline victims of the frustrated public they are trying to serve.

Talk openly and frequently about what employees are experiencing

Listening is always among the most important skills for leaders to develop to effectively support their teams. In today’s environment, it is even more essential. At least a portion of each department staff meeting, which should be held at least monthly, should take on the characteristics of group therapy. Encourage staff members to talk about what they are experiencing and their feelings about the stress it creates. You may be surprised at how often colleagues will offer coping mechanisms they’ve found helpful in dealing with upset customers. As a leader, always express sincere gratitude for the sacrifices your team is making to support the organizations during the pandemic.

Walk in their shoes

If leaders are not visible and experiencing firsthand what’s happening with customers, staff usually assume they have no idea what’s really going on. Connected leaders understand the power of taking a shift, stepping up leadership rounding, and being available when team members need them most.

As the public grows more frustrated and weary with the pandemic, conversations with your staff can get more tense and combative.

Implement or refresh de-escalation training

Comprehensive de-escalation training is usually reserved for those professionals in the most conflict-prone, stressful jobs, such as law enforcement. But basic, easy-to-implement de-escalation principles are helpful to anyone on the frontlines right now. Packaging these straightforward techniques into short learning modules that can be shared in staff meetings or on online platforms is a good way to help staff develop coping skills that they need right now.

Teach staff how to say “no” respectfully and effectively

There are many more questions and requests from customers that staff cannot safely accommodate these days. Whether it is limited visitation in a health care facility or the requirement to properly wear a mask in a retail store, your employees are saying “no” more often than usual. In our training with health care professionals (which are transferable to all customer facing industries), we use the following simple four-step model to deny requests more empathetically and effectively:

  • Acknowledge the customer’s circumstances and that you understand the importance of his/her request. (“I know these masks are uncomfortable, aren’t they?”)
  • Lay the groundwork and rationale for the “no” answer. (“But protecting you and everyone else in our store is our top priority.”)
  • Say “no” definitively, using “we/us” not “you” language. (“So we’re not allowing any customers to enter our store without a mask,” rather than, “You can’t come in our store without a mask.”)
  • Offer alternatives if available. (“To help, we’re offering convenient online shopping and curbside delivery right now.”)
Emphasize the power of empathy

Everyone is struggling right now: young parents trying to simultaneously work from home and supervise online school … waiters and chefs looking for any paying job … nurses enduring the physical and emotional stress of more COVID patients … and, of course, family and friends personally affected by the pandemic. While we can never fully understand what another human being is feeling, the power in empathy is in the trying. Empathy is always the most potent way to connect with people. Today it can also be a fundamental coping skill.

Among the essential competences that leaders model for their teams, empathy may be most important right now. Leaders trying to understand the struggles their employees are experiencing is the best way to help staff appreciate the power of empathy when dealing with customers’ frustration and anger.

For leaders, it is easy to get consumed by today’s challenges, believing that when the pandemic finally fades everything will get back to “normal.” But how we support staff in 2020 will have a significant impact on workforce culture long after COVID-19 is just a sad memory.