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Are Managers Our Last Great Hope?

I’ll never forget the time that I reached into my box and pulled out a form with big red letters across it: DENIED WITHOUT PAYMENT.  At the time, I was a teacher at a charter high school in San Francisco. Following a routine eye exam, I needed to schedule a scary follow-up appointment with a […]

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Photo by Kristel Hayes.
Photo by Kristel Hayes.

I’ll never forget the time that I reached into my box and pulled out a form with big red letters across it: DENIED WITHOUT PAYMENT. 

At the time, I was a teacher at a charter high school in San Francisco. Following a routine eye exam, I needed to schedule a scary follow-up appointment with a specialized eye institute to assess whether or not I was at risk of going blind. The catch was that the latest appointment I could book was at 1 pm, meaning I was going to have to miss some school. I thought through this hard. How could I take care of my own health and at the same time make sure that my students wouldn’t be left behind? Yes, there was always the option of calling in sick and getting a sub, but everyone knows that sub equals no work. Plus, a sub equals more money spent, which my underfunded school could ill afford. Therefore, the best plan, I deduced, would be to make the appointment on a Wednesday afternoon, the day that students were dismissed at noon to allow for professional development time for faculty and staff. 

Appointment set, I submitted the requisite form requesting time off (a formality, or so I thought), and then didn’t think much of it.

Fast forward one month later: I got the notice in my box. I was puzzled and thought surely this must be some kind of mistake. And, surely, after explaining, the principal (my boss) would change his mind. We scheduled a time, and after I sat down, I provided the full story. He gazed back at me with feigned compassion. “Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating.” Then, he paused. “However, professional development time is even more important than classroom time. I just can’t have you missing that. So, I stand by my decision.” I then countered with, “So, let me get this straight, what if I had just pretended to be sick, called in the morning to get a last-minute sub, would I have received payment?” “Yes,” he blankly responded. I followed the thread further. “You mean if I had lied, I would not have been denied payment?” He nodded. “That’s correct.” 

No surprise, I didn’t return at the end of the year. I left my boss – not my job. And, Gallup estimates that 75% of employees who voluntarily leave their jobs do the same.

But, it’s more than that. At that moment, I needed my boss to have my back, and he didn’t. 

If you’re a boss, I can guarantee that your team members need you to have their back more than ever. A recent Boston University School of Public Health study revealed that rates of depression in America have tripled since the onset of the pandemic. And, while engagement rates went up to record highs at the start of the pandemic, they are now at record lows.

As a manager, what can you do to help your team navigate this challenging time?

Do. Prioritize your own self-care. Not only will you be better for it; your team members will be, as well. They are looking to you to lead by example. That may feel like a lot of pressure, but the truth is that it’s not about being perfect; it’s about making the effort. Your team members are looking to you “make it OK” to engage with their well-being.

Speak. Are you engaging in in conversations about well-being with your team members? This can require a certain level of vulnerability but can make all the difference. Consider that in this time when many of us are feeling our most fragile selves, more than half of employees are fearful of talking about their mental health with their boss.

Create. While you may have little influence over what’s happening in the larger organization (not to mention what’s happening in our world!), you can take measures to carve out an oasis of well-being. With thoughtful rituals, systems, processes and activities, you can create the conditions that promote better health and well-being – even if your team is now virtually connected.

While it may sound like an overstatement, maybe managers really are our last hope. At a minimum, a manager that is invested in well-being can make a big difference for the people they lead.

I know that it sure would have made a difference for me.

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