NCSL Podcasts

Melissa Furman on the Pandemic and the Workplace | OAS Episode 211

Episode Summary

Melissa Furman is a trainer, coach, and consultant who's worked with legislative staff. She joined the podcast, the second in a series focused on legislative staff, to discuss the aftermath of the pandemic in the workplace including burnout, new challenges of and some lessons to take away from the emergency.

Episode Notes

Melissa Furman is a trainer, coach, and consultant to professionals and businesses who's worked with legislative staff. Furman was a college professor and Dean before founding her firm Career potential. Her expertise includes generational diversity, emotional intelligence and leadership.

She's the guest on the podcast, the second in a series focused on legislative staff, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it changed the workplace. She addressed the persistent problem of burnout in the workplace, how leadership was critical to success during the pandemic, and some lessons to take away from the emergency. 


Episode Transcription

Ed:     Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host Ed Smith. 


MF:    Unfortunately, we are still seeing that people are experiencing heightened levels of burnout. Burnout was present before the pandemic. The pandemic accelerated it like many things and really amplified the effects of it. 


Ed:     That was Dr. Melissa Furman, a trainer, coach and consultant to professionals and businesses who has worked with legislative staff. Furman was a college professor and dean before founding her firm Career Potential. Her expertise includes generational diversity, emotional intelligence and leadership. She is my guest on this podcast, the second in a series focused on legislative staff, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it changed the workplace. She addressed the persistent problem with burnout in the workplace, how leadership was critical to success during the pandemic and some lessons to take away from the emergency. Here is our discussion.


Dr. Furman, thanks for taking the time to do this. To start, I wonder if you could tell listeners a little bit about your background.


MF:    Sure. Thank you for inviting me to participate. In regards to my background, I consider myself a recovering academic or recovering higher ed administrator because I was a business professor and assistant dean of a business school for almost 15 years and I transitioned to starting my own business with the goal to share my knowledge and expertise with industry, different government entities, corporate America non-profit in addition to sharing my expertise with students. So, my business is called Career Potential. I provide consulting, speaking, training and coaching services around my different areas of expertise which include leadership development, organizational development as it relates to recruitment, retention, engagement, things like that. DDI and emotional intelligence.


Ed:     So, I’m talking with you today as part of a series of podcasts aimed at legislative staff, state legislative staff and the theme I guess if you can call it that is trying to make sense of what happened during the pandemic. I know you talked with groups during that period about how to cope with the uncertain times then. I know you did a webinar with legislative staff on that topic. So, I wonder if you could first talk generally about what seemed to be the lasting effects of the pandemic in the workplace.


MF:    Unfortunately, we are still seeing that people are still experiencing heightened levels of burnout. Burnout was present before the pandemic. The pandemic accelerated it like many things and really amplified the effects of it. And burnout is basically defined as prolonged exposure to psychological stress and we all experienced prolonged exposure to psychological stress throughout the pandemic. And we were kind of hoping as the dust settled people would start recharging and their batteries would be recharged. However, we really haven’t seen that so the stress directly related to the pandemic has decreased. However, we are still seeing these heightened levels. People are functioning right at their tipping point and the slightest challenge or stress has them bubbling over. And this is really creating some challenges in the workplace especially for leaders as they are trying to navigate and manage folks who even constituents who have this heightened level of burnout. 


Ed:     Let me talk to you specifically about the work environment of legislative staff and along the lines of what you were just saying. They have jobs that can be very stressful and they can be particularly stressful during session and I wonder if you could talk about how critical leadership was during this destruction, this emergency and if you think the lessons learned in that period can help leaders now that that emergency has passed?


MF:    Yeah, and unfortunately, that was one of the upsides of the pandemic is somebody like me who researches and studies leadership, I was just foaming at the mouth so excited to study this phenomenon of what would happen and yeah absolutely. We know leadership was so critical during the disruption of the pandemic. But like I said earlier, the pandemic just amplified and accelerated additional disruptors and the disruption continues to happen. And unfortunately, will continue to happen. As a result, relevant modern-day leaderships are skilled, leadership skills, are needed more than ever. And a lot of leaders who are leading organizations really have not taken the time to access whether or not they have the relevant modern day leadership skills needed. They need to think about their abilities, their capabilities and are they aligned with the demands of the challenges that we are encountering today. So, for example, leaders today need to be well versed in change management. We know change is constant. We know it’s not going away and so leaders need to learn how to function in an everchanging environment and most leadership training paradigms theories out there really didn’t touch on this. I mean transformation leadership maybe, but a lot of leaders today just are using the old skills and tools they’ve always used and that’s really not applicable irrelevant today. They also need to access their ability to manage and lead diverse populations. We have the most diverse workforce and constituency in the history of America and again, many leadership theories and paradigms and training were not designed with diverse populations in mind. Most of them were designed for a very standardized group. And so are leaders ready to lead in different ways to be more inclusive and to lead in this everchanging environment.


           Two more things. They need to learn how to make quick decisions using data. Data is more accessible than ever, but unfortunately data can tell you any story you want it to tell. So, leaders just knowing how to read the data is one thing, but also how to be able to make decisions, quick decisions using the data appropriately. And the last one I’m going to close with just to kind of touch on a few here is back to the piece of burnout. I mean leaders need to know how to manage their own burnout and also how to lead and help others navigate this prolonged psychological stress that they are finding themselves in. They really, really need to be stopping and thinking do I have what it takes to lead into the future and if they don’t, they need to be looking at ways that they can get those skills.


Ed:     So, I’m interested in what you said both about that and also about burnout. Do you think at least in the organizations you are interacting with that you see people looking at this seriously and understanding that it is a problem or or not?


MF:    Yes and no. In some sense, I’m really proud on how some organizations and how some leaders have really embraced this concept of mental health and well being and identifying the signs and being more inclusive in providing treatments and care packages to help people with this. But also, on the other side of it, unfortunately, I’ve seen the other 50% percent of leaders who still have a very authoritarian directive mindset of there is no crying in baseball right to quote a league of their own. You check your emotions at the door. You leave it at the door. This is all about resiliency and grit and overcoming adversity. We’ve all been through it before. You know suck it up. We can do this. And so, I’m seeing the split 50/50. Proud of the ones who are embracing it, helping people out. But then also disappointed in the ones who are really holding on to a different way of doing things where they are really not supporting the people the way that they could be.


TM:    08:00


Ed:     Let me ask you to drill down on that a little bit more. You’ve worked in all these areas so when the pandemic happened, when the emergency came along, were you surprised at the leadership that was exhibited, how people reacted as professionals. Were you either cheered or disappointed by how people reacted?


MF:    Starting with the leadership, I will you I was really impressed and proud on how many of our leaders rose to the occasion. And you know leadership is easy when things are going well and everything is good. But when things get tough, the true leaders really rise to the occasion and I was really impressed and proud on how they handled it. But again, we know some people just simply didn’t have it and I wasn’t even necessarily disappointed. Some of them it was expected. Now if we boil it down to the professionals themselves, looking back, I am really impressed at the resiliency of people and professionals. We were faced with challenges we have never been faced with before and some people have more grit than others and have more resiliency than others, but I was really impressed on how quickly we were able to adapt and figure out how to navigate the situation. Now that could be a biased perspective because I was looking for it. I don’t want to diminish that there may be some people who didn’t make it through it and struggled and it was a very stressful time. But overall, I am proud of the professionals and the professional behavior that people had throughout that time.


Ed:     Thanks Dr. Furman. We will be right back after this short break with the rest of our conversation.




Ed:     Let me ask you about along the theme of burnout, coping with stress, people taking care of themselves. They were very common themes during the emergency and I wonder what kind of tools people turned to and if you think some are more effective than others.


MF:    The effectiveness depends on the person. There’s a lot of different tools out there and some tools work better for others and not so much for other people. In many cases, you have to look at the tools that are out there and which one would work best for your based on your needs and what you need. So, things like mindset reframing, I mean the human mind is a very, very powerful tool and it could be also ne a very destructive tool. And so, for some people, they just needed to do mindset reframing. I mean myself I even had to do that. I had to get in the mindset. As a matter of fact, I’ll share with you. I was just being pouty recently because I had to cancel a vacation because of a personal matter that had to be taken care of. And then I reminded myself that for 2 years, nobody took a vacation and I got through it and we did just fine. And that’s because during that pandemic you really didn’t have a choice and we had to find ways to crate vacations right in our loving rooms, in our backyards and so for some they used mindset reframing focusing on the positives, focusing on gratitude exercises and that worked.


           Other people needed to just practice self-care you know finding things that really made them happy. Finding things that helped them recharge and they leaned into that and did more of that. Maybe they picked up a new hobby or they started a tournament within their family where they were playing a game. Whatever it was. Some people confronted the change or cause of the burnout and that was kind of interesting too because we heard about the great reflection where one of the double-edged swords that came out of the pandemic was people reflected upon A what as most important to them, but also B they weren’t happy with the lifestyle that they were living and so they were brave to use this opportunity to confront the challenges that were causing the burnout. Some people sought out mental health professional help and I love that as a trained mental health counselor because for the longest time there has been this stigma of reaching out to help and/or help wasn’t easily accessible. Well now that we have shown proof of concept of telemedicine and online counseling and therapy, help is more accessible than it has ever been and people found that to be very, very effective. Hopefully this will still use and employ and apply the same techniques they used throughout the pandemic and not be pouty like I was when I had to cancel a recent vacation.


Ed:     And let me ask you this in that sense where you talk about how the individual can try to deal with this, I wonder what workplace lessons you took away from the pandemic. This is what you do. You go in and you work with people in the workplace and try to help them to see a way I’m assuming here to be more effective maybe to be more empathetic to create a better place to work. Were there things you learned during the pandemic that surprised you that going forward you may incorporate into how you talk to people about their workplace?


MF:    100%. I actually came up with a new topic that I’m talking about this year. And it’s adaptability. We all knew adaptability was important before the pandemic hit, but now we know it is more important than ever and it is going to continue to be important as we move forward. And when we are talking about adaptability, yes there’s individual adaptability. How comfortable is an individual with change and adapting to new things and I’ll share with you most individuals are not wired to openly accept change. So, it does take some work. But more importantly there are things that organizations can do to be more adaptable and this is something that I’m out talking to people about because change will continue to occur at an accelerated pace. It is not going away. It’s the only thing that is constant and you can have an organization full of individuals who are adaptable, but if the organization is not set up to embrace it, it’s going to create some problems so let me give you some specific things that organizations need to be thinking about. 


           First one being, organizational support. That’s basically looking at whether or not organizations value employee contributions and generally care about employee well-being. So, if an organization wants to be adaptable which is going to be a necessity, they need to make sure that their employees feel cared about. The second and there’s five so I’m going to go through them rather quickly. The second one is that organizations need to have positive what I call emotional health. There has to be a strong positive mindset or feeling or morale about the organization. If you want into an organization and people are being negative or the don’t feel positive about the organization, the likelihood of the organization being able to quickly adapt in times of change and disruption is actually low. Okay so let me talk about the third one. The first one being organizational support. People need to feel supported. The second one being emotional health. People need to have a positive feeling about their employer. And then the third one breaks it down a little bit more specifically as it relates to team support. So, when people within these bigger organizations you have little teams within them. And on that team people need to feel comfortable in sharing their knowledge. They need to feel comfortable with openly discussing their opinions and they need to feel supported when faced with challenges. So, they need the organizational support to know the organization cares about them. They need to have a positive mindset as it relates to the organization.


           And now let’s go on even more microlevel that they need to feel like the team that they specifically work on supports them. The fourth of the fifth is the work environment itself needs to encourage and support disruption and change. Specifically, leadership. Your technology. Your systems. Your processes. Does the environment support change and that is something that organizations I think quickly had a wakeup call when they came into the pandemic. Oh my gosh. We don’t have the technology or oh my gosh we don’t have the infrastructure to do this so you need to have that to also be adaptable. And then the fifth one and it’s interesting all 5 of these seem very similar, but if you really listen there’s nuances to them. But the fifth one is work stress. To truly be adaptable and to have employees wo can quickly embrace change and quickly adapt, they can’t have an unmanageable, unreasonable workload or work stress because having that additional stress is just extra weight on that workload and so right now, I’m working with some organizations to do what we call workload efficiency studies where we are looking at the actual workload on each person’s plate, but then also looking at the perception of the workload on each person’s place. Because again one of the things, one of the many things that came out of the pandemic is people picked up new roles, new responsibilities, new tasks or a position was vacated and they kept it vacated and they distributed the work amongst five other people without really assessing was their room on people’s plate to distribute that work. Or the way that our work is distributed, have we revisited that in 50 years. You know does it make sense that we are doing it the way that we’ve always done it. And so, we have to be thinking about the work stress. And so those five things are what organizations and leaders of organizations need to be thinking about. Do they have those five things in place so they can say that their organization is truly adaptable and can adapt to any change that is thrown their way which we know is coming. It’s going to happen.


Ed:     I think we just got a 20-minute seminar here. What a great presenter you are and how efficient you are in presenting it. So, Melissa, thank you so much. I appreciate your time and you have a good weekend.


MF:    Great. Thanks. You too.


Ed:     I’ve been talking with Dr. Melissa Furman, founder of Career Potential about what we learned about the workplace during the pandemic and how those lessons can help now. Thanks for listening.


           TM:  19:47


You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.