Thursday, Apr 2, 2020

Crying at Work During COVID-19: A Novice’s Perspective

Jessica ZeaskeManaging Partner, Echo Health Ventures


I cried at work yesterday. During a conference call.

We were discussing how ICU workers are updating their personal Advanced Directives after virtually tucking their children in at night. I had a few tears before I signed off and then sobbed as I envisioned their bravery. Then – like so many others who are several steps removed from the front line of health care – I got back to work attempting to find ways to support those who need it most.

I have held crying at work with disdain for as long as I can remember. How dare a professional (especially a woman) be so unprofessional? I built my career in venture capital much like my mother built her career in Silicon Valley in the 80s. We both draw a bright bold line between work activities and personal life. I take immense pride in her padded-shoulder-pantsuit-trajectory, rising in the ranks at tech companies throughout my childhood. Still vibrantly working, she continues to model for me how to unequivocally and fiercely love your work – and your kids. Always staying “professional” at work is one of the foundations of this. There’s no crying. Even on a bad day. Especially in a crisis.

However, this unprecedented time where home, work, and emotions continuously collide has required me to re-assess this line and consider breaking old habits. Our humanity is on the line. And as I think about the colleagues and bosses I truly seek to emulate in their treatment of others (including my dear mom), I realize they were not only brilliant in conveying information and mentoring my career, but also in showing me and others that they truly cared. I watch Rob Coppedge daily lead a master class in how to lead with authenticity, I see Bryony Winn’s heart on her sleeve as she balances a pandemic and motherhood, I marvel at Lisa Suennen’s unshakable sass and honesty as she welcomes us into her life through her blogs, and I appreciate more every day Jodi Hubler’s steadfast teaching that the blurring of these lines are worth it. And I realize it’s not about the tears – it is about living fully and honestly through the other stuff going on in life too.

So, as these unusual weeks go on, I am instituting a new personal rule. I plan to ask everyone about how they are doing before I launch into pressing work issues. Is there anyone impacted in your life? How are you really holding up? Likewise, I let down my guard and the mask of a brave face more than I ever would have deemed “professional” before. 

To be clear, there are pressing work issues. Those of us working on the financing side of the health care services world are spending long hours scenario planning, challenging unknown realities as the venture capital market begins to react to the crisis, and evaluating unproven pandemic-facing innovations (for instance, how to rapidly expand at-home clinical models, distribute self-service COVID-19 content, and share data rapidly but securely). We counsel CEOs, gather best practices, and learn to play offense and defense at the same time. For strategic investors, who provide additional long-range support to their fund sources, we share an added role of being an advisor and source of new perspectives and innovations from the broader market. We’re not on the front line, but our portfolio companies are (or close to it). Our companies are finding ways to support providers and patients in ways they did not consider two months ago while also adapting to the professional and interpersonal challenges in this new reality. It is humbling to be working with so many digital health and health care services company trying to truly make an impact.

Learning to interact in a new way during one of the busiest times in my career is new ground for me. For all of us. We wouldn’t be the forward-thinking and problem-solving humans we need to be if it was easy. But we can’t waste this chance to show each other our competency – and our character – in equal measure.

So yes, I cried at work. And am better for it.

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