Dealing with the pandemic was one example of having to balance personal life with work life. Over the last few years, my family also had another thing weighing over us on the personal life side of the ledger: my mother-in-law, Pat, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. For 2 years, much of it during the pandemic, our family day-to-day life was very different. We made everything we could out of every day.
Over this past summer, things took a turn. My family needed me, and not just during the off hours. The balance was fully weighed down on one side. Dealing with loss as a family affects your work to a huge extent.
Here I was, leading a team of great people, with major projects underway, and I couldn’t be there for them. I tried to have a few hours here and there, trying to keep things moving. I held some office hours regularly so that people could get in touch with me if something urgent came up, but for the majority of every day my team was on their own.
This was one of the things I learned from the pandemic: that need for balance. I knew that if I kept trying to do all of my work and also try to support my family in the way they needed, there wouldn’t be much of me left functioning in the end. As it was, it was incredibly tough to keep a straight face during some calls. It was hard to prioritize things like quarterly reporting. It was tough to see important projects moving along without me.
After mum passed away, I took some time to roll myself slowly back into a work schedule. And then I realized something: I had a conference presentation. I was presenting this very talk, minus this topic, two weeks after her passing. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t sure it would be smart to do it. So I made a decision: I was not ready to talk about things. So I provided a pre-recorded version of the talk I had used for a different conference, made sure I was available as a backup, and did some text-based support for questions and social media. I made it through and out the other side, giving me time before the next major event to build up the mental space for presentations. I think it’s important that we look to ourselves in these situations and understand what we can handle. Maybe somebody else would have been able to do that talk, but for me, at that time, it was just not going to happen. And I needed to know that and take care of myself first.
Now, today, I’m talking to you about this really important topic. And none of this would have been possible without having an understanding management team that supported me and allowed me to do what was right for myself and my family. I realized during this that one of the things that was most required in leadership was investing in your people and managing burnout. As a leader, you need to focus on managing yourself, but you also need to watch for those on your team. What can you do to make room for your team members to be healthy? How can you make sure they have what they need? What questions do you need to ask? And when things happen, how do you react and support them?
Loss is a heavy burden to carry, and sometimes you need help to make it through.