At the height of the pandemic last year, Acceleration Partners, like many organizations, had employees who were extremely stressed and needed support from their managers and our culture team. During some of the most difficult days, I even heard stories of employees who lost their tempers and lashed out at the people trying to help them, likely from a place of fear or exhaustion.

Knowing this, we reminded employees to please respect the “first responders,” who were trying to help them cope with their challenges. Many of these helpers were facing the exact same pandemic challenges and stress but felt a responsibility to dedicate their time and energy to helping others.

The people on the front lines helping others have often carried the heaviest burden throughout the pandemic—that’s probably why 66 percent of American nurses have considered quitting since March 2020.

Over the past 18 months, many leaders and managers had a disproportionate burden on their shoulders, especially the sandwich generation—people who are responsible for both children and aging parents and are at the age where they’re more likely to be leading large teams. In the face of these responsibilities, these leaders’ personal wellbeing was often an afterthought.

Now, as we near two years of pandemic life, many of these same individuals are starting to show the effects. Burnout seems to be moving upward from the front lines to the executive suite.

In my 25-year career, I cannot remember a more difficult environment for leadership. Managers and leaders who faced a historic demand collapse just 12 months ago are suddenly dealing with surging demand while wrestling with broken supply chains and managing a massive talent shortage across the entire economy. They are also managing these problems against a backdrop of ongoing challenges with mental health and social justice.

However, the strain these massive challenges are placing on managers and leaders is often invisible to their peers or the people they lead.

It’s easy to see why leaders’ personal struggles get overlooked; when we face difficult situations or setbacks, it’s human nature to think of our own point of view first. We tend to focus on how everything affects us, rather than thinking about others.

When a person is struggling with work or has too much on their plate, they often assume their leaders don’t care. It’s natural to point the finger at management when things go wrong. But while leaders should be accountable, in many cases they are doing their best with the cards they’ve been dealt, just like you. Sometimes there are no easy solutions to hard problems.

In challenging times, everyone on the org chart—from the intern to the CEO—deserves grace and understanding. Just as employees have rightly asked for compassion from their managers in the past two years, I sense in my recent conversations that managers could really use a sense of upward compassion in return.

Your managers and leaders are not fundamentally different people than you. In many cases they sat in your exact seat a few months or years ago. They are human and fallible. If you’re feeling burned out, scared and exhausted, your manager probably feels the same. And even if you aren’t considering their challenges, they are often thinking about yours.

With that in mind, I would ask you: when was the last time you asked your manager how they are doing on a human-to-human level, especially if you have expected the same from them?

In times like this, we need to consider all the people around us—our peers, our teams and, yes, our leaders. Here are three simple ways to spread some upward compassion.

  • Always take a step back to think about what you can control and where you might be able to take ownership. An ownership mindset helps others and empowers you as well.
  • Expect a lot from your leaders, but don’t expect them to be perfect; they are going to make mistakes. Instead, judge leadership by whether they are willing to own their missteps, are transparent and are open to feedback.
  • Remember that leaders are wrestling with the same challenges you face. Often times in difficult situations they are just trying to do their jobs as best they can.

When you step outside your own perspective and consider what others are going through, you’ll not just treat others better, but you may establish a deeper and more personal connection that will endure through your life and career.

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