The coronavirus pandemic has hit Main Street businesses especially hard. And, unlike many of their larger, corporate counterparts, these business owners have fewer financial and human resources to help them cope. So, entrepreneurial service organizations have been a lifeline for them during this critical time. In fact, recent stats reveal that visits to many SourceLink affiliate websites and incoming hotline calls are at record volumes.
But, many ESOs are realizing that although their front-line service providers possess technical expertise and are trained to dole out business advice, many are unprepared for the mental toll that comes with providing support to emotionally spent business owners.
Emotional Fatigue Takes a Toll
“We are not trained to be counselors,” said Jenny Miller, a network builder at KCSourceLink. “Yet our clients—many that we’ve helped to launch and then build their businesses—have been calling us with their hopes and dreams in jeopardy, on the brink of financial failure. It takes a mental toll after several phone calls like that.”
Thomas Hall, the executive director of the Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub at the University of North Carolina, has seen a similar pattern among the service providers on his staff.
“My staff, as with most all the groups helping startups and small businesses, tends to get emotionally invested in the startup and in the founders personally. So, as they work with them and see them struggle with something out of their control, that is devastating their livelihoods, it takes a toll on the counselor,” he said.
Frustration, creeps in too, Miller noted, as service providers recognize their limited ability to assist their clients because circumstances such as funding options and local and state orders can change daily. And the toll mounts even more when the service providers’ personal situations are factored in.
“We need to remember it’s hard on service providers personally, working from home, working with children, with pets, in a small space, in bedrooms or living rooms, where they’re not used to working from,” Miller said.
Hall added that in addition to dealing with clients’ business concerns, some on his staff have been dealing with at-risk situations and COVID-19 itself.
“Many of the staff have family members at risk; for example, elderly parents they care for, or some are pregnant. So that personal situation is on their minds too,” he said. “Several of our board members caught the virus. Thankfully, they all recovered, but they did suffer during it, and as they integrated with my staff, many were worried for them and their own welfare.”
“What we’re focusing on at SourceLink is not only how we can best serve the businesses in the community, but also our resource partners,” said Miller.
There are several coping mechanisms ESOs can encourage service providers to use to combat the emotional fatigue and recharge, according to Miller.
1. Virtual counseling. In some communities throughout the U.S., virtual counseling sites and/or hotlines are available to assist people who need someone to listen to them as they deal with their challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.
The hotlines can sometimes be found through a local United Way. In Kansas City, for example, the Mental Health Association of the Heartland’s “Compassionate Ear Warmline” is available by calling (800) WARM-EAR. It operates from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Like similar hotlines, it is not business-specific, but it does offer a peer-operated listening service for people who need support. Trained volunteers provide non-clinical, non-crisis supportive listening. A state-by-state breakdown of warmlines around the country can be found at www.warmline.org.
2. Employee Assistance Programs. A sometimes-overlooked employee benefit is access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). One component of these programs is confidential assessments, counseling, referrals, etc., for employees who are dealing with personal and work-related issues.
This may be a time for ESOs to remind their service providers about the EAPs available through their organizations and to encourage them to use their services.
3. Sharing success stories. When so much news is gloomy, it’s easy to forget the success stories that continue to emerge. Although many businesses are struggling for survival—and some have even closed—others have been able to successfully pivot or adopt disruptive business models. And, amid the uncertainty, businesses actually continue to launch.
Sharing can occur in one-on-one conversations, during scheduled meetings or through video or blogs. Miller said that sharing these stories with each other during operations calls or weekly partner meetings is uplifting. And, she said, the stories can become yet another tool resource providers have at their disposal as they talk with their clients, serving as examples of best practices other businesses may be able to emulate.
Baltimore SourceLink’s blog features a Business of the Month to highlight successful businesses. Likewise, KCSourceLink’s “Top 10 Kansas City Entrepreneur Stories” showcase businesses that have overcome the odds and found a path to success.
4. Creating social support. Some ESOs have developed tools designed to connect their staff and foster their resiliency so they can better face stressful challenges. While some of these “tools” are as simple as virtual happy hours where staff can share what’s going on in their lives, others are more structured.
Connie Hancock, a Nebraska Extension consultant working on the Nebraska Entrepreneurship Initiative, said they are using a Learning Circles program, offered in 5-week and 8-week sessions, to invest in staff resiliency and develop their network integrator capacity.
“We also need support in this environment,” she said. “We’re frontline kind of people hearing stories that just break our hearts. So, how can we be as resilient as possible to be a great support to the folks who are calling in for our help and assistance?”
Hancock noted that while the system can buoy individual service providers, “it’s really to enhance support systemwide.”
“We’re offering this to our extension staff to help them think about this new world that we’re in, and supporting each other as we go along, and being very strategic and intentional about creating that support system. This model can also very easily be utilized with businesses and helping businesses support each other too.”
UNC’s Hall said the key is to be in regular communication with staff.
“We have Zoom or WebEx calls once or twice a week as a group, and many more individually. The key is to keep in touch. We have also been very transparent with information on reopening, budget cuts and recovery resources,” he said. “That helps to diminish some of the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.”
Finally, Miller said, the important thing is to make sure your staff knows it’s acceptable to seek support. Send a frequent and consistent message that it’s okay to rally their community around them and to use all the resources available to them.
“It’s not a time for being ashamed,” she said.