The Great Balancing Act
May 2022

By Shirley Payne, PhD, MPH, Assistant Commissioner, Public Health Commission, Indiana Department of Health


Throughout the pandemic, we have navigated what I characterize as the great balancing act in both our personal and professional lives. Each area required us to dive into uncharted waters and pushed us to new heights and limits that we often did not know we could reach. We did this while also trying to be mindful of our health and wellbeing and those around us. At times it was draining, and it still can be.

During this pandemic, I lost both of my grandparents—less than two years apart. No words can convey the heaviness of losing two of the most influential people I have ever known. Professionally, I had the honor of taking on multiple leadership roles as our state responded to the pandemic.

Watching my team members selflessly give so much of themselves to ensure the entire state had access to information and resources for testing and vaccine administration made me so proud to be working with them. The team worked endless late nights and early mornings. These efforts came at a cost to them and their families, but they persevered without hesitation to prioritize the needs of the public over their own. It was truly awe-inspiring! As we ramp down operations and try to prioritize needs moving forward, the toll the pandemic has taken on them is evident.

We are all learning that while we may have to pause to catch our breath, everything around us keeps moving. How then do we find a way to keep going and support others in doing the same?  Simply put, we must start with ourselves! It may be cliché to say, “you cannot pour from an empty cup,” but the essence of this expression to care for ourselves first is the necessary reminder that we need. Iyanla Vanzant expanded on this concept best. She said that we should give others what is overflowing from our cups, not what is in it. She goes on to say that when we give to other people what is inside of our cups, we unknowingly make them a thief. What a powerful way to describe it!

As a leader, I have made it my mission to ask people how they are doing holistically and not just in the workplace. This gives them a safe and open space, and it is also cathartic for me. We can no longer afford to not care about the overall health and wellbeing of our team members after all that we have collectively experienced. We have to be another supportive person in their lives that helps them find balance when needed. We also cannot be afraid to acknowledge when we too need a break.

One quote that I continue to share widely with my friends, family, and colleagues comes from Alex Elle: Gentle reminder: You don’t always have to hold it together or get it right. Standing in your power also looks like giving yourself the space to fall apart. Give yourself permission to take your cape off, to have an emotional moment, and to take days off without feeling the need to keep up with work.

Please show that same grace to your teams. Recently, I “micromanaged” a team member when they left for vacation to ensure they were getting the needed break. I had this person send me a picture of their work laptop and cellphone sitting on their home desk before leaving for vacation. As difficult as it may be at times, we must let go of unhealthy mindsets. We must have faith that things will still get completed if we are not available. We must also get away from thinking we must be available 24/7 even when we are away. Trust me, I know this is easier said than done, especially because embracing this mindset of needing to be available at all times was the norm for many of us over the past two years.

I hope you do not take offense when I say that your job itself is what you do and not fully who you are. In no way am I diminishing all the expertise, passion, joy, and the calling we have for our work that inherently makes it a part of who we are and how we want to show up in the world. What I am offering is yet another gentle reminder, which originates from Dolly Parton:

Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.

We do not know what the future holds and may not be able to control it; however, we can control how we care for ourselves first and subsequently for those around us. We must continue to lift each other in love and light. Let us continue to lead with compassion and grace on this journey. No one is exempt from needing to give and show these values!