Going Back to Work after Pittsburgh: Not Checking Our Baggage at the Door

By Richard J. Levin & Sara Miller-Paul

A manager feels helpless and ill-prepared to provide support to their team during challenging times. An educator is at a loss for words to comfort their students. A parent fears they might say “the wrong thing” or not do “enough” in helping their child react to a threatening situation. A social worker, trained to guide and protect their clients, discovers that their own support system isn’t sufficient during times of crisis. For years, we’ve been writing that you can no longer “check your baggage at the door,” and it’s especially salient now.

The rise of antisemitism, the lack of respect for diversity, an unfortunate dearth of leadership, and the preponderance of incivility have made it nearly impossible to leave our feelings, reactions, and self-interests behind when we enter the workplace. Combined with a 24-hour news cycle, national tragedies can begin to feel hauntingly frequent, and can magnify concerns and fears about our vulnerabilities. Especially after a week that held an antisemitic massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, racially-motivated murders in a Kentucky grocery store, and bombs mailed to public figures, it’s become more difficult to ignore and/or suppress current events and their grip on everyday life.

We were once taught not to discuss politics or religion at work. But with the amount of time we devote to our professional lives, our colleagues have become our extended family, and overwhelming feelings of helplessness cannot be contained when we arrive at the office. To hold in our feelings results in depression, anxiety, heightened fear, and a lack of productivity at work.

The time-honored perspective that there should be a firewall between work and the rest of our lives was partially shattered along with the glass ceiling. Unfortunately, neither work/life integration nor barrier-free advancement for women has made as much progress as we had hoped when this field of work/life policy development was created in the 1980’s.

Richard once had the privilege to guest-teach a class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management Executive MBA Program. The students – 62 leaders, average age 39, women and men from companies worldwide – expressed deep concern that “managing our lives, and the lives of our teams” (aligning personal life, family life, and work life) would be the biggest challenge they will face as they move up the corporate ladder.

Many of us walk this work/life tightrope without a safety net, teetering between work and family without enough time or sleep to make any of it successful. And this supposed balancing act becomes more pronounced in the face of fear and anxiety.

We believe work/life integration, on the other hand, can have a profound impact on the way we handle difficult situations in our professional and personal lives, from small stressors to urgent crises. Bringing our whole selves to the table enables a work team to understand, support, and strengthen relational coordination. We’ve seen this in extreme cases: when someone’s spouse is going through chemotherapy, or a hate crime targets a community. The team can flex and extend when needed, it can better understand the emotional pressure on their members, and it can help assure that team members don’t take over-sensitivity personally or out of context. Transparency about work/life stresses maximizes synergies.

Especially in times of national tragedy or public trauma, what are some best practices for teams and leaders?

  1. Awareness: give yourself the space to acknowledge how you’re feeling.
  2. Sharing: as appropriate, give others a window into how you’re feeling. This isn’t a vent session, it’s a “heads-up.”
  3. Support: feeling comfortable and safe asking for what you need. And, conversely, offering before your team member asks.
  4. External support: understanding that there is no stigma to seeking or referring to a mental health professional for additional guidance, therapy, or support.
  5. Self-care: encouraging yourself (or colleagues) to tend to their well-being, even assuring the most basic wellness strategies of exercise and nutrition.

May we be able to train ourselves to turn toward one another, rather than away, when we feel threatened, stressed, or overwhelmed. May each of our personal lives and our professional lives support and strengthen the other. May we use our collective influence to make our workplaces simultaneously more compassionate and productive.

Dr. Richard Levin helped create the profession of executive coaching in the 1980’s, overlapping with his leadership of the “work/family movement” of the 1990’s. Richard chaired the first International Conference on Work and Family, edited a book on work and family (Shared Purpose), and co-authored the long-running newspaper column “As We Live and Work.” He currently heads a global network of leadership coaches and organizational consultants.

Sara Miller-Paul is the Managing Director of Richard Levin & Associates, a leadership development firm with deep roots in the Jewish professional space. Together with a team of consultants, facilitators, and coaches, RLA harnesses the power of emotional intelligence, empathy, and influence to help organizations and leaders reach their potential.