How to help your staff during difficult times

A compassionate workplace starts with you. Here’s how to lead during difficult times.

It may seem counterintuitive, but to best help your employees through a difficult time, you must first help yourself. Think of the instruction flight attendants give passengers: “Before helping others with their oxygen masks, put yours on first.” This isn’t selfish — it’s selfless. If you run out of oxygen, you won’t be able to help anyone else survive. 

Hopefully, your work environment doesn’t involve frequent life-or-death situations, but the metaphor still applies. Even as you work to create a compassionate environment — one that allows your team to feel supported during difficult times — it’s critical you don’t overlook your own wellbeing. 

If your team is worried about something that has universal impact (let’s acknowledge the most recent elephant in the room: the recession), it’s likely that you are, too. And before you can lead them during turbulent times, you’ll need to find your own terra firma, first. If you don’t, it’s likely your emotions will leach into the team. Anxiety will beget more anxiety, creating an undesirable impact on team productivity and morale. 

Stuff suitcases and turkeys not feelings 

So when the going gets tough, how do you manage yourself so you can manage others? For starters, it’s probably not by putting on a happy face and pretending everything is fine. Masking your feelings and putting your head down aren’t authentic or helpful responses either. This will ring hollow with the people you manage and as mentioned, exacerbate the uneasiness they already feel. 

Conversely, you don’t want to veer too far in the other direction and continuously ruminate on how upsetting or difficult a situation is. An approach somewhere to the right of ‘the sky is falling,’ and to the left of ‘everything’s fine,’ will serve you well in situations such as this. Keep in mind that extreme positivity can not only be toxic in the workplace but it can also damage your credibility. The same advice applies to exhibiting panic as well — no matter how warranted it might feel (hello pandemic) — steer clear. 

Compassion from leaders and co-workers brings a feeling of gratitude and influences the person to reciprocate in the same way when noticing someone else struggling with adversities (Fredrickson, 2003; Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).

Go for genuine support not feel-good Instagram quotes

When it’s time to deal with uncertainty and stress at work, resist the siren song of helpful advice that social media provides. It’s tempting for sure, particularly when the urge is to help, but it’s a fine line between being patronizing and offering genuine support. Instead, try a more active and authentic approach. 

Here are some practical actions you can take to help your team remain focused during a difficult time.

1. Set the mood. As a leader, you create the tone for your team; perhaps your entire organization. How you behave is how your employees will behave — they will take their lead from you. Maintain positive energy and try to frame challenges as opportunities for growth for everyone, including yourself. 

2. Communicate often. It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers, no one does. Hold team meetings to discuss concerns and ask and answer any questions. Since not everyone will share the same concerns or need the same things, schedule 1:1 meetings with employees. Jackie Ferguson, co-founder of The Diversity Movement, explains, "As leaders, we must be mindful of how personal and societal events can affect the individuals on your teams. Seeing people as whole individuals rather than simply employees is key to inclusive leadership.”

By giving people the opportunity to let you know where they’re at and what they need, you’ll also open the door to problem solving. “When you provide employees space to share emotion, have off-days and respect down time and priorities outside the workplace,” said Ferguson, “the organizational culture becomes one that fosters trust, safety and appreciation. This benefits your business by increasing productivity, retention, and innovation.”

3. Demonstrate empathy. In the face of company budget cuts, possible layoffs or perks currently on pause, motivating others to continue working hard can be difficult if not downright mystifying. 

One low-lift but incredibly beneficial action is to practice active listening. This requires nothing more than engaging with the speaker through nonverbal cues such as eye contact, nodding and giving your full attention. Instead of distracted ‘hearing’ (looking at a phone or laptop while someone is speaking to you), active listening requires you to paraphrase what you heard back to the speaker. 

While this act of repeating what you heard does not equate to agreement (or disagreement), it does confirm your understanding of the information. In turn, your attentiveness allows the employee to feel valued and respected. Although it may not be the same as weekly catered lunch, active listening can have a much longer-lasting impact, strengthening working relationships across the team.

4. Destigmatize mental health. Mental health plays a crucial role in a productive and focused workplace; however, the stigma associated with mental health issues often precludes people from getting help. 

As a leader, it’s up to you to destigmatize mental health. Being intentional in how you communicate about mental health is an impactful place to start. By speaking about the health of the entire person — not just the mind — it’s possible to shift perception to a more positive and holistic view. 

During group and even 1:1 meetings, mention that any feelings of stress should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Emphasize that everyone has their limits and that help is available (make sure that information is easily accessible), with no questions asked. 

Expressing that mental illness is on par with medical illness can be all someone needs to hear to take the first step to improve their quality of life realize their full potential. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every $1 USD invested in treating depression and anxiety leads to a return of US$ 5 in improved health and productivity.

5. Demonstrate thoughtfulness and show gratitude. Take a page from Harry Styles and treat people with kindness. Sharing simple and genuine expressions of gratitude toward staff are important and can even increase someone’s sense of well being. Take time to publicly recognize and thank individuals and teams for the work they are doing and don’t discount the impact of a sincere thank-you note. 

Here’s an example of one you might send to an employee:

Dear [Employee], it’s been a tough few months at work and as your manager, I wanted to take the time to let you know we couldn’t have gotten through it without you. 

Your performance has been excellent and your dedication is beyond compare. The team benefits from your positive attitude which has been invaluable. I see the extra effort you’ve been putting in and it shows — your work continues to keep us out of the red. 

Thanks again for going above and beyond, not just in the good times, but the more challenging ones, too. 

Your manager

6. Emphasize a shared purpose. In the spirit of we’re all in this together, help your team operate with a long-term outlook. Acknowledge that things are difficult right now, but they won’t always be. Remind the team of past triumphs during other demanding times and solicit their feedback for suggestions and thoughts about ways to manage the current situation. 

Provide insights and guidance about priorities while communicating the important role each person plays in the company’s overarching goals. Continue to share updates in real time and avoid dismissing any concerns that may arise.

7. Care for yourself. As you go about showing compassion and leadership to those around you, don’t neglect yourself. Remember to show yourself that same understanding and grace. When you acknowledge your own stress and anxiety, you’ll be better equipped to model resiliency with those who count on you.

The success of your business depends on the continued efforts and focus of your employees. When your team feels supported and appreciated, seen and heard, they will be motivated to keep up the good work. And when you remember to serve yourself first, you can ensure you remain a healthy leader and individual too. 

Here at the LenovoPRO Community, we’re interested in how you manage during challenging times.

As a leader, what have you found beneficial for helping others feel both supported and engaged when faced with challenging and upsetting circumstances?

What’s the one thing you can say to someone (or have heard yourself) that made all the difference?

Let us know in the comments below and we’ll share some of our personal tips, too. If you’re interested in learning more about how to support the mental health needs of yourself and your team, The Center for Workplace Mental Health offers numerous free tools, resources and information on their site. 

Let us know your experiences in the comments below!

 About the Author

Stephanie has worked in the B2B tech space for more than 20 years for brands such as IBM and Oracle, as well as on the agency side at Uncompany, The Favorite Co., Ogilvy and Mather, Leopard and other agencies. Stephanie believes in putting the reader first and won't rest until she's communicated a motivating, "Why should I care?" message. When she's not writing on behalf of her freelance clients, in her spare time, Stephanie's working on a novel and the occasional poem.

Click to connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn


  • In difficult times, compassion and understanding are essential elements of support. When faced with challenging and upsetting circumstances, it can be beneficial to take a moment to empathize with the individual and express compassion. A simple phrase like “I understand how difficult this must be” or “I'm sorry you're going through this” can make a huge difference. It shows compassion and understanding while also letting the individual know that they are not alone in their struggle. Additionally, affirming and validating the individual’s feelings can provide a feeling of being heard and understood, even when it is difficult to find the words. This compassion and understanding can help give someone the strength they need to face the challenges ahead. Ultimately, compassion and understanding can go a long way in helping others feel supported and engaged during difficult times.