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Challenging Times for All

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
June 2, 2020

Somewhere around the first part of March this year, everything changed for Americans. This impacted not only those that work in the public service but in the nonprofit and private sectors as well. Indeed, its impact knew no boundaries and we came face-to-face with a pandemic unlike anything anyone has seen in the nation. We were thrust into a new and unfamiliar environment at work and at home.

Several things happened with our citizens, and many of them less than desirable. We started sleeping less. We had more difficulty concentrating. Our nation’s drug and alcohol use increased. And our routines changed. No longer could we begin our day with a trip to the local coffee shop or gym. And even if we could, the workplace we used to frequent was no longer accessible.

Interestingly, immediately before the arrival of COVID-19, three very significant surveys were released to the American public that shed light not only on our workforce, but on the very citizens we serve. One of these studies, released by Gallup, suggested an extraordinary amount of stress among Americans at work. The findings were astounding: 83% of United States workers suffering from work-related stress at a cost of $300 billion yearly to businesses.

Two other studies had equally intriguing findings. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears found three of the top 10 fears in the United States were directly related to illness, dying and high medical bills. And American’s biggest fear? Corrupt government officials. So, in a time where Americans are afraid to leave their homes, we find that fears related to health and dying, and trust in those that lead us, were already there, before COVID.

Finally, Cigna released the U.S. Loneliness Index indicating that three out of every five adults, or 61%, report that they sometimes or always feel lonely. The younger generation was the loneliest of all. And of those, there was a greater feeling of loneliness among people who used social media more frequently, which is precisely what many of us are depending upon now.

All of this was pre-COVID.

So what does this mean for those serving the public? Those delivering civilization to our nation? It means we must take extraordinary steps to recognize and embrace the fears and trepidations that our citizens face. And it begins with a few simple steps:

1 – Admit you’re afraid. Coming to grips with what we face in the coming days is important, and embracing and acknowledging the fear we have is a strong first step toward tackling the challenges head. Mayor Eric Garcetti acknowledged as much when he commented, “I’m strong, I’m steeled and I’m scared. When people ask me how I’m feeling it’s all three. I’m scared for all of us for what’s ahead, but I feel very strong.”

2 – Connect with others. Admittedly, this is one of the most difficult things to do in our new environment. The technical platform we used to communicate virtually is no substitute for human-to-human contact. The psychodynamics of sound, eye contact and nonverbal communication are extremely limited, if not completely absent, in a virtual world. This impacts our ability to connect with those we lead. Still, we must try as often, and as best we can.

3 – Continue to lead.  Now more than ever, those we lead need our love, caring and compassion. They also need clarity. Most are afraid that they will be seen as less than productive in a virtual or blended world. Brene Brown’s maxim rings true—clear is kind, unclear is unkind. Be clear and decisive with those you lead. Show that you care that they care by giving them the framework they need to achieve the agency’s mission. Your public will be better for it.

4 – Care for yourself. We are of no use to those we lead if we are not looking after our own health and well-being first. Author Parker Palmer once wrote, “Self-care is never a selfish actit is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” Well-said.

Things will never be the same. Our lives, our workplaces, our routines have been permanently altered in an unforgiving and heartless manner. The nation is stressed, afraid and lonely. They are depending on those who deliver civilization—our public service heroes—to be there. And if history is any indication, our citizens can count on it.


Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service. His new co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) will be released in Spring 2021.

EmaiL: [email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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