“I’ve never seen the faces of some of the people who work for me,” a nursing home administrator recently shared. The statement stunned me but shouldn’t have. Of course she hasn’t. Since the pandemic, new people on staff wore masks to their job interviews at the long-term care facility and are now hidden behind eye protection, too. 

The administrator’s comment was made in the context of an uptick of tension between employees. She’s seeing less goodwill and more petty squabbles blown out of proportion. After all these months on COVID-19 high alert, the nerves of her staff seem to be fraying a bit at the edges — like our nerves are, too.

Masks helped create some of these challenges, she believes, and make them so much harder to defuse. Voices have to be raised just to be heard, words are muffled and misunderstood, and tone is obscured. Co-workers don’t get to really see each other, so the facial expressions that would usually give clarity to an interaction are lost. 

“Talking to each other has basically become one-dimensional, like a text message,” she says. “Maybe we should all be walking around the facility holding up an assortment of emojis on sticks to make certain our intentions are clear. Otherwise, anything can seem like an attack.”

It’s frustrating for any leader, and especially for an intuitive one who relies on interpersonal connections.

“So much of my strength in team building is relational, and without that visual element I’m missing my most important tool,” she says. 

As long as face maks and other  infection control fashion accessories are necessary, I fear it’s going to be a hard problem to solve. Chances are, many senior care employees don’t clearly understand how much their own understanding of and empathy for others are being hampered by their face coverings. 

Even though the concept might seem obvious, administrators should constantly remind staff of the importance of remembering the person behind the mask — and, of course, should practice that themselves. Just talking about it could go a long way toward helping co-workers extend some much-needed patience and grace to each other.