None of This is Normal and That’s The Point 

 February 23, 2021

The other day I sat down in front of my laptop with dual monitor, home office setup to view my morning list of tasks. I like lists. I like checking them off. One by one. With each check I get a small shot of endorphins and the subsequent surge of motivation to complete the next one is already coursing through my veins.

Action, Meet Reaction.

But on this day I was left with a few tasks that sort of had me wondering what’s come of this past year and when did I grow so okay with this “new normal.

My list read:

  • Finish last night’s emails.
  • Check marketing website for updates
  • Re-wash kiddo school masks
  • Grab extra M95 mask for school
  • Review travel plan for upcoming in-person meetings
  • Ask Mom for more Surface Cleaner
  • Re-watch Contagion before bed

Okay that last one is a joke but are you, like me, seamlessly adding “new normal’s” that would’ve never crossed your mind in the past? Are you evaluating and re-evaluating your hand washing routine? Found the best in hand salve or spent hours researching better mRNA vaccines?

Even if you yourself don’t care that much at all about what’s been going on in the world this past year you have to admit it hasn’t seemed all that….normal.

And it’s about at this part in the blog where I start in on all the ways this year hasn’t been normal and that it’s okay and we’re bound to return to some form of normalcy and blah blah blah.

But you know better than that because if you’re like me you’ve realized that there wasn’t anything normal about normal to begin with and that’s sort of the whole point.

Accepting What Is

Back in August of this last year I was asked to speak to several groups of healthcare leaders about burnout in healthcare and as part of the research into our webinar I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times where the headline read “It’s Like Working In a Nuclear Reactor”. The article goes on to chronicle what it was like working in the COVID-19 ICU in New York Hospitals during the earliest and most intense days of the pandemic.

Those that worked there gave testimony after testimony of coming into shifts and working 12+ hour days where almost every patient they saw or would see was almost certainly going to die of this, at that point, brand new disease.

The employees were burning out at alarming rates and leaders felt helpless and caught between the need to save patients lives but also the lives of their own employees.

I knew what we were experiencing as a country was not normal. I was left with a sense that what I could provide from my own years of experience in helping leaders engage their employees was small when compared to what I could learn from the very people who themselves were working right next to that Nuclear reactor every day.  

So my colleague and I began upon a process that would lead us to talk to several leaders, front-line employees, supervisors and everyone involved in some of the largest healthcare organizations in the country, as well as non-HC related companies. And this is in part of what we found that leaders were doing when they themselves felt they were some way fighting back against the incoming tide of fear, anger, frustration and all out defeat in the face of uncertainty.


These leaders were not accepting this new reality as the “new normal” because they themselves already knew that the word “normal” never existed to begin with. These leaders were not coincidentally also the same leaders who were progressive in their own workplaces years before the pandemic took place. They were open to adapting to new challenges in the face of new information. They listened to their employees first and then acted second.

Most of all they accepted their new realities and decided to act.

Here then is some of what we found and will talk about in my upcoming talk: Engaging, Uplifting, and Connecting Employees in a Remote World during the AdvoCat Series on March 9th.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat. (sort of)

These leaders were doing many of the same things without even knowing that they were doing this. They weren’t all calling their efforts by the same names but never-the-less they were creating action plans that looked very similar.

The key to it all, as we saw from the outside, was that these leaders were creating feedback loops with reinforcement or coaching opportunities at almost every step of the way. Here are the basic steps they followed:


These leaders were telling their front-line and direct-supervisors to not fight the stress and fear amongst their teams. They were instead saying to listen first and acknowledge their reality as such, regardless of how helpless some of them might feel.

That looked different to different organizations but most of them followed similar steps to try and accomplish this. From regular daily check-ins to open forum-like “Zoom sessions” where employees were encouraged to let it all out in a safe and trusted environment. The bottom line being – just giving your feelings life outside of your own head was going to help in some way.

Leaders also allowed some of their employees to lead themselves. They encouraged and pushed forward those employees who wanted to be there, who wanted to step in these extraordinary times. They acknowledged that their chosen professions were fundamentally important to our society and that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For most, it was a calling.


This step allowed the genie to go “back in the bottle” if you will. The step prior to this left a lot of leaders with mouths wide open, or hearts heavy, shaken at the shear weight of what was in front of them and their employees. But they all realized they couldn’t just leave things at “acknowledge”. There had to be something to follow up with.

Engaging took on a brand new meaning to these leaders during these challenging times.

The most frequent thing we saw were the welcomed and amazing ways leaders engaged their teams with both physical and mental health resources. They were giving employees bonuses to be used towards home gyms or Peloton memberships, or finding free and easy online resources for new workout routines. They even created socially distant or Zoom classes for employees who wanted to try and work out “together”.

These same organizations also highly prioritized employee assistance programs. Ensuring the mental wellbeing took on a greater importance. From meditation apps to online programs teaching the value of focused breathing we saw a wide array of ways teams were engaging their employees to take their mental health serious.


Lastly, once employees felt listened to and engaged-with, these same leaders knew that they needed to reinforce the positive actions and heroic levels their employees were going to to help their patients or customers.

There was story after story of genuine heroism and some of these individuals rose to almost A-list starlike status inside the walls of these organizations. And with good reason – these people were rockstars. But what those leaders also realized was that these stories provided ample examples of what to do and leaders were searching for more effective ways to easily spread these stories as far and wide as possible.

The proliferation of recognition programs during the pandemic surprised me. Given my background in and around employee recognition for the past decade I am not short on reasons why I think it’s important.

But to see these organizations embrace these very same ideas as both ways to raise each other up and also raise up the behaviors they want to see repeated during a pandemic was not normal to me. Not one bit.

And I for one am completely okay with that.

The Wrap

Author: Craig Spilker, Head of Product + Engagement 

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