Uncertainty Fatigue: Supporting Staff A Year into the Pandemic

February 4, 2021 BY Kelly C. Bawden, MS, CCC-SLP

Uncertainty fatigue is real. It has been nearly a full year since the pandemic abruptly upended education and for many of us, things feel only marginally more settled today than they did in those early days. The routine is now all too familiar: just when we feel like we have a handle on things, someone above our paygrade makes a decision that flips over our apple cart, and we’re back at square one. It sometimes feels like Lucy moving the football right before Charlie Brown kicks it, and other times it feels like a wayward toddler occasionally walks past the little snowglobe we live inside of and shakes it for their entertainment. You likely have your analogies for how these last months have felt, but we all have a deeper understanding of uncertainty now than any of us ever cared to. 

In addition to understanding and implementing the constantly changing mandates, leading staff through these last months has been its’ own unique challenge. And now, at a time in the school year when we would ordinarily be starting to think about the Fall, the outlook is ambiguous at best. Staff feels the uncertainty fatigue, too, and are looking to their administrators for answers that do not exist. There is no easy way through this, but here are 4 things you can do to help both yourself and your people start to prepare for the year to come. 

Create space 

Nearly every article about leading in uncertain times emphasizes the importance of reflecting on your own experience and sharing it with those you lead. Tess Brigham, a therapist and coach, says, “get curious, get out of your ego, and stop worrying about how you’ll be perceived in these difficult times. Your people need you.” Elizabeth White, author of 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal, puts it more bluntly in her NPR interview: “You have to get off your throne.” 

When you share your feelings, you create a space for your staff to do the same. Perhaps you simply start every staff meeting with a quick, one-word check-in (use your virtual whiteboard!) or make a note to yourself to share your personal thoughts the next time you have to present the latest mandate. Many leaders have created a virtual office that staff can pop into, unscheduled, at certain times each day. If you want something more in-depth, consider sending a survey to your team (anonymous might be best) asking questions about what they’re worried about, what they’re excited about, what they need, their highs and lows. Before you send it, share your answers to whatever questions you ask. Again, this helps staff to feel safe and know they are in a non-judgmental space. The information that your team shares with you, whether in one word or 100, will give you tremendous insight into how you can best support them now and next school year. 

Connect people with resources 

This one may seem like a no-brainer. You and your HR department have probably already done this sometime in the last year. But consider your own experience: do you remember the resources that were shared with you last March? September? Even last month? Make a point of sharing self-care resources with your staff as often as possible. A quick google search for “self-care for teachers” will give you loads of ideas and articles to share (like this one and this one, for example). If you have an employee assistance plan, remind your staff often and provide them with the information they need to access it. There may be local resources you can share with your team, too, including how to access emergency food and housing assistance. These are all the sorts of things that you don’t know you’ll need until the moment you need them, so make it part of your routine to share often. This will communicate to your staff that you care about their well-being as much as (if not more than) the job’s minutiae.

Create certainty where you can 

Ask yourself, “What do I know for sure?” and communicate that to your staff as often as possible. Maybe all you know for sure is that you’ll hold a weekly meeting or send a weekly update email no matter what. That’s enough! When things are as chaotic as they have been this year, there is tremendous power in the smallest certainty. When your staff knows they can count on you, it relieves stress and creates mental space to do their best work. It also gives them a stable anchor point upon which they can start to think about what next year might look like. 

Let the rest go

This one is hard, but it’s also perhaps the most important on the list. You’re doing a lot. Your staff is doing a lot. Everyone is doing orders of magnitude more than they ever have before. Remind yourself of this often. And then give yourself and your staff permission just to let some stuff go. Oosten, Smith, and Boyatzis write that in times of crisis, it isnatural to cling to the status quo, urging people to stick to deadlines, assigned tasks, and as-normal-as-possible routines. But that would be a mistake.” Instead, they encourage leaders to be intentional about noticing what people are doing and expressing their gratitude. When leaders do this, it lifts a sizable load from the shoulders of staff, allows them to focus on the positive things that are happening, and frees their minds to think about the possibility of a positive future.

Above all else, reflect on the adage that people may not remember the words you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. So if you can do nothing else, focus your efforts on kindness, compassion, and understanding towards your staff. Find camaraderie in your shared experience of this moment and remind both yourself and them that, uncertain as these times may be, they will pass, next year will come, and you will get through this together.