It’s OK to Ask for Help

I read a statement online this week that I cannot stop thinking about: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

Replace the word home with hospital, office or wherever basecamp is for you, and it changes how we describe what many of us are facing right now. It took me a week to fully gather my thoughts before writing this post because I couldn’t quite pinpoint how I was feeling, what I was hearing from both public and private sector employees and how best to acknowledge the array of emotions.

But it recently hit me. In times of crisis, that is when we need support the most. That is when employees need to know from their managers, and managers need to know from their senior leaders that they are appreciated as whole human beings, not just as worker bees. Employees should not be penalized or made to feel less than for communicating when they are struggling and how this global pandemic is impacting their ability to carry on as usual.

I love what a wise leader told me a few weeks ago: This is not business as usual; this is business as best we can. Yes, the mission is still intact, but it should not be achieved at the expense of your team’s health and well-being. It’s during times of crisis that employees need an environment where it is not only OK — but regularly communicated and demonstrated — that they can and should ask for help.

And that help looks different for everyone. For working parents and caregivers, having the flexibility, empathy and support to be both an employee and a caregiver is vital. This has been a point of contention in some cases and a big topic of discussion across agencies.

On March 27, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released updated guidance in response to the numerous questions  “regarding the circumstances faced by telework-eligible employees who have caregiving responsibilities due to closure of schools and/or unavailability of care providers as a result of locally-directed precautions for COVID-19.”

If you haven’t read the 1,000+ word response from OPM, you can find that here. In a nutshell, agencies can offer flexible work schedules for employees to meet their 80-hour biweekly work requirements, paid administrative leave, or evacuation pay if employees are not permitted to work at the office. Per OPM’s evacuation pay regulations, “an agency that has issued an evacuation order has the authority to determine what and how much work evacuated employees are expected to perform.”

There’s also the option for employees to use their personal leave or take sick time. But how feasible are these options if parents must play the role of employee, caregiver and teacher for at least the next few months? I can’t speak on behalf of all parents, but I know that many are struggling to clock their normal hours because they are juggling many hats. They are still performing their duties, but they’ve had to get creative about how and when those duties are performed.

I was both encouraged and saddened to see what moms in a Facebook group I’m a part of were saying about their work environment. Some federal workers said their agencies are allowing them to work flexible schedules, and they can use up to 20 hours of administrative leave (paid leave) to care for their child or dependant. But that is the exception rather than the rule for agencies. Another federal worker said the accommodations came in the form of working early mornings, late nights and weekends to cover the 40-hour workweek.

For others, the silence when it comes to flexibility has been deafening. Either leadership hasn’t said anything and expects business as usual, or the employer has been clear about expecting employees to get work done without a hitch.

The general sentiment was these ladies were very grateful to still have jobs and some were hesitant to communicate their needs for help — in an effort not to rock the boat.

In writing this piece, I’ve also been thinking about practical ways that employers can make it OK to ask for help and how employees can begin to have those conversations.

My message to employers

  • Lead with empathy. These are unprecedented times, and your leadership (or lack thereof) can either uplift or demoralize your staff.
  • Lead by example. I’ve realized that it’s not enough for me to just tell my team to take breaks and step away from their device and not check Slack. I must also model that behavior.
  • Be clear in your communication. Don’t leave employees wondering and don’t be ambiguous. Make it OK for honest dialogue and conversation to take place. Start by being transparent with your team and sharing how you are coping and hurdles you are working through.
  • Genuinely check on your team, not to micromanage but to understand how they are doing, how their family is doing and what support they might need. I loved a recent post from one of our former featured contributors. He shared how he called his direct reports, encouraged them to unplug after work each day and to take care of themselves and their families. These seemingly small gestures go a long way.

My message to employees

  • Be kind to yourself and extend grace. That means not beating yourself up if you didn’t cross off everything on your to-do list. You are far more than a to-do list.
  • With that said, be realistic with yourself about what is and is not feasible each day. I know every manager is different, but consider when a critical conversation may be needed to talk about changing dynamics as we all adjust to this new normal.
  • Take it one day at a time. There’s no shortage of advice out there about how to structure your day, how to work and parent, how to tackle house projects, and much more. Go at your own pace and find the natural fit for you.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thank you, Michael! You shared excellent points that really highlighted the issues that are near and dear to me.