The Stress Is Real: 6 Ways for Product Leaders to Care for Their Employees and Teams

gratitude leadership product management Sep 01, 2021


The days seem to be blend together. I wake up unsure if it's Tuesday or Saturday. Between worrying about our health, the health of our families, the economy, plus the usual work stress, we’re all craving a bit of normalcy. Many organizations are in the middle of a battle for survival, creating a higher level of stress and anxiety.  

While the world spins around each of us, we need to not only take care of our physical health, but also our mental health. Leaders need to be there for their teams. Employees need to be there for each other. 

We can have all the virtual happy hours and birthday celebrations in the world. For many, this is not enough to manage the anxiety facing them each day in this new normal. Organizations need to provide human-centered cultures where employees can express their fear and vulnerability. Leaving emotions “at home” is no longer an option with all the chaos in the world. 

new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows 45% of Americans say the pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19% say it has had a "major impact."

Here are some ways organizations can support employees during these challenging times:

1.     Leaders must start with themselves.

Leaders need to first take care of themselves. Leaders are handling the stress of both the pandemic and keeping their organization afloat. They need to model healthy behaviors, have a positive outlook, and have an outlet for their fears and uncertainties. Like putting on your own oxygen mask on a plane before you attend to your fellow passengers, leaders can hardly care for others if they are struggling. Energy is not infinite, and "powering through" won't be enough for the intensity of the weeks and months that lie ahead. 

2.     Acknowledge what is happening.

We can have our usual staff meetings focused on the tasks at hand. But you need to first meet employees where they are. For some, the toll and trauma of the virus have come very close to home. Leaders must acknowledge:

  • the stress everyone is under
  • the fact that this new normal can be exhausting and distracting
  • people may not be operating at peak capacity
  • the experience of loss everyone is facing right now – of connection, security, and normalcy

By leaning into the vulnerability we are all feeling and calling it to the forefront, you build trust, belonging, and provide a safe environment where people can do their best work, even amid a pandemic.

3.     Encourage boundaries.

When we work from home, we can end up working 14+ hours. Encourage managers to set limits on employees' work schedules. Leaders should start with themselves by signing off at a reasonable time. It can be tempting to work more while you have your work at home; but it can also be taxing on your health and well-being.

4.     Be empathetic.

Regular, open communication is critical in these uncertain times. Leaders must be the calm voice of reason. and pay attention to how they communicate. A statement with a caring tone such as "whatever happens, we'll do the best we can to support you," can go a long way to tell employees they matter.

Leaders must also integrate empathy into all of their decisions. This might include extending sick pay to those caring for family members or simply encouraging employees to spend time with their family. Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, is an example of an empathetic leader. In a recent staff memo, he stated, "[A]ll we ask is that you find a balance that works for you. Whatever works for you works for us." Whether employees work a few hours a day, or on some days, none at all, they will still be paid their full salaries. 

5.     Relax the rules.

Any leader who cannot acknowledge the psychological impact of being quarantined at home is letting their entire company down. Employees' needs, behaviors, and attitudes are going to change. Human-centered leaders recognize that employees are working under a cloud of uncertainty and fear. If they are not as productive as usual or act-out in unusual ways, they should by supported rather than chastised.

6.     Highlight resources.

Social distancing is creating a lot of anxiety and stress. Leaders need to highlight the resources available, such as EAP programs, and frequently communicate the availability of these resources.  

Empathetic, human-centered leaders will be remembered long after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.  These leaders will be the drivers of the breakthrough innovations. They will be the ones written about in the future as the leaders of companies who thrived in the midst of uncertainty.

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