Even though the first dot-com bubble was in mid-burst 21 years ago, Jenn Lim was still shocked when she heard the news that she was going to be laid off. She experienced a range of emotions, having worked so hard in her position for so long. Shortly after, 9/11 happened, and her father was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, all within the course of a year.

Today, she feels like many people are facing their own double or trifecta of loss, pointing to the 2022 Gallup State of Work Report that shows only 21% of employees are engaged at work and employees are more stressed now than in 2020.

“People are still reeling and processing not just what might be happening with layoffs, but also all of the two and a half years we've had leading up to this,” says Lim, Chief Executive Officer of culture consulting firm Delivering Happiness and author of Beyond Happiness. “It's just compounding and compounding.”

But leaders can use this time where everything feels uncertain to clarify their values, re-invest in their own wellbeing, and be a beacon of empathy to their teams, who likely face the same feelings of uncertainty and fear.

For Lim, it means embracing a three-step process of acknowledging the emotions at play, asking what’s in our control, and then acting in the ways that are within our control.

“Our natural tendency during these times is to sweep our emotions under the rug, saying I’ll be fine, I’m gonna dust off and get up again,” she says. “But for me back then, I was angry as hell.” It took acknowledging her anger to really clarify her values and what was important to her.

The next step is to take a clear-eyed look at what’s within our control, and what’s outside of our control to bring a more analytical framework to the situation. This enables us to better act on the things we can actually do in any given situation. For instance, we may not be able to control when and if we might be laid off, but we can use the time to reconnect with people in the same industry that we respect, or with people at other companies that are interesting.

Understanding that everyone within a company is likely facing the same emotions can also help leaders be more empathetic and transparent with their teams. “The collective fear and sadness that we all might be experiencing can help strong leaders be more thoughtful and discerning in what and how they communicate,” says Megan Leasher, industrial psychologist and Chief Solutions Strategist at Talent Plus, Inc.

Timely and transparent communication builds stronger relationships and allies during a challenging situation, and can build up support that helps the entire team. “Continually sharing ‘Here are the few things I know and here is the big list of things I don’t know,’ will instill trust from people who are in a state of anxiety,” says Leasher. “Creating shared knowledge makes a team feel like they are all in it together and have their leader on their side.”

If a layoff does become necessary, leaders can rely on their own experiences to harness empathy, and communicate with clarity. Lim points to how Airbnb Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky handled bad news during the start of the pandemic which decimated travel. “He sent a really heartfelt email that addressed the people that were getting laid off and the people staying on,” she says. “They could tell he really meant it. It shows how a layoff can actually be done in a more compassionate way.”

Focusing on support systems and mindfulness practices can also make it more tolerable to make it through the most stressful and uncertain phases of our careers. Lim says as leaders we sometimes tend to focus on “growing other greenhouses,” at the expense of our own self-care. But times like this can provide a positive opportunity to do the work that leads to the self-knowledge necessary to know what grounds us during stressful times. “It could be taking time in nature, or taking a walk, or meditation,” says Lim. “The biggest key is that leaders need to do the work to understand what is specific to them and what practice they value for themselves to feel aligned and grounded.”

For Leasher, she doesn’t hesitate to lean on friends and family at these stressful junctures, knowing that’s when she needs support the most. And she also focuses on the good in her personal life and the good in the work itself. “I remind myself that I will be ok,” she says. “No matter what change may bring.”

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