Ohm, Sweet Ohm: Mindful Mental Health for Residential Property Managers

Magazine ,

By Darlyn Finch Kuhn

Lori Agudo was frightened. In mid-March, as businesses closed all around her due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she began working from home, and found that sheltering in place was extremely difficult for her. As director of training and talent development for Royal American Management, Agudo supports 630 employees, and is involved in the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando and the Florida Apartment Association. A social person accustomed to interacting with many people in person on a regular basis, she felt isolated from the world. Watching her own spirits crumble, Agudo turned to a multifamily industry friend for support. 

Ashlee Partin of Affinity Waste Solutions, which provides trash removal services to multifamily communities, invited Agudo to participate in a series of video calls that provided both inspiration and motivation. “Participating in ‘Navigating Multifamily’ allowed me to see the industry friends I missed so very much. This did wonders for my emotional state during this time,” Agudo said. “It gave me the strength to power through and feel like there are better days ahead. I no longer felt alone. ... I had something to look forward to that was positive during a dark time in history.”

Stress comes with the job

Property managers don’t need a pandemic to find stress in their lives. Katie Smith is human resources manager for JMG Realty Inc. She said, “Essentially, our property managers are the eyes and ears and boots on the ground of the community and are responsible for ensuring the company’s and owners’ visions for the community are achieved. ... There is tremendous pressure to meet income goals while managing expenses. ... In this business, if you are the property manager, there are no true vacation days or weekends. Those who consider themselves the best in the business would agree that managers are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Christopher Koback, regional manager in Tampa for South Oxford Management, immediate past president of the Bay Area Apartment Association, and a 30-plus-year veteran of the industry, said, “Managers in our industry thrive on the daily challenges that end up on their desks. It’s in their DNA.” He said SOM’s managers are treated like small-business owners. “They are responsible for the overall operation of a multimillion-dollar real estate investment.”

Greg Mark, senior vice president at Pinnacle, said the company’s property managers “face a host of stresses in their job, and no one’s stress level is necessarily the same as the others’. As with most leadership positions, property managers are challenged with employee relations, performance effects from shifting market conditions, and time sensitive requests from clients, residents, and supervisors.”

How stress manifests in property managers

Smith acknowledged the stress involved in the lifestyle: “A small amount of stress and friendly competition keeps individuals fresh and on their toes. When stress becomes overwhelming, this affects individuals physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Stress leads to bad habits such as eating unhealthily, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and not sleeping well, which can then result in a lack of focus, irritability, aggression, and poor mood. All of this results in poor performance, and can be detrimental to a team.”

She continued, “When bad habits manifest for a long period of time, stress builds up and ultimately leads to burnout. Developing good time management combined with effective leadership and the ability to develop others can reduce the risk of burnout. It’s also important to speak up when help is needed. I believe, many times, managers in our industry are afraid to ask for help and wait until it become too difficult to recover from. ... It is critical for HR to develop trust and a positive rapport with site-level managers in order to identify when a manager is in trouble and needs additional support and help.”

Mark said, “When people are overwhelmed, tasks can tend to slip through the cracks. Stress can impact production and quality.”

Koback concurred. “Stress can lead to employees rushing to judgment and making snap decisions,” he said. “There is no worse feeling than having to face these issues all alone or unsupported.” At SOM, that doesn’t happen, he said. “The one important factor that can make or break a manager from being able to handle the stress is having a management company that fully supports its on-site teams. Feeling the freedom to be able to call a supervisor and ask for advice, help, or even just to vent makes all the difference in the world.”

How management companies try to help

In late March 2020, a couple of weeks into widespread shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith knew that JMG’s property managers must be feeling the same intense stress as she. So she reached out to property management team leaders to provide coaching on how to deal with the concerns of property managers across the various properties in the JMG portfolio. She said, “Many of our clients immediately wanted to know our plan regarding managing COVID-19. This was also very stressful for us as information was changing every day as the pandemic erupted in the U.S. COVID-19 has presented a new set of challenges, creating additional stressors for managers and staff as they try to collect rent from residents who have lost employment and field calls from residents due to the offices and amenities being closed.”

Koback agreed that COVID-19 has added a great deal of stress to property managers’ loads. “The rapidly and ever-changing challenges associated with COVID-19 has everyone stressed right now,” he said. “We always thought we really knew our residents, but having to experience this pandemic as essential workers and deal directly with so many people who have been financially and physically impacted has really opened our eyes to what ‘knowing your resident’ really means.” He listed loss of employment and subsequent financial uncertainty, residents’ or residents’ families’ illness, and residents having to work from home while not being used to “apartment living by day’’ as stressors that impact residents and the property managers who care about them. Koback also acknowledged that entering apartments and dealing with residents who may be asymptomatic has caused concern among property managers about their own health and that of their families and friends.

He added that COVID-19 has resulted in owners needing more information, more often, in order to make smart business decisions for their investments. He said for property managers this means, “The stressful job you already had still needs to be completed, and now, in addition, you have new reports, spreadsheets, and deadlines.”

Mark concurred. “Client stressors come in many different forms, such as time-sensitive projects or accelerated performance. In addition, unexpected requests to provide data or information can throw a wrench into even the most organized manager’s day,” he said. He also pointed out that, as life becomes more stressful for residents, they can pass that stress on to their property manager. “Rent payments are typically the largest monthly expense for our residents, and when things are not going right, they can become emotionally charged. Our property managers must be able to mitigate that stress and provide solutions.”

A new management style for a new normal

Mark added that Pinnacle’s property managers have successfully adapted to a different management style during the pandemic. “These professionals are responsible for providing quality service and building relationships. This becomes very difficult without the ability to interact face to-face,” he said. “The pandemic has created a heightened workload for our managers due to additional reporting and protocols and skeleton staffing. Changes in legislation have also increased challenges with collections, leasing, and renewals. Our managers have been forced to shift their operating procedures to fit this ‘new normal.’”

Smith also noted the extreme shift in operations at JMG. In an email to her team leaders with the subject line, “What the heck just happened?” she wrote, “We went from a great start to 2020, with business as usual doing what we love, to operations being turned upside down and somewhat to a stand-still. Many of you are probably thinking the same thing that I am right now. What now? How long is this going to last? What else is going to happen? Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers to those questions right now. There’s not a handbook to refer to for this. And, that feeling of uncertainty is pretty daunting and overwhelming.”

By acknowledging her own vulnerability and lack of certainty in what the future would hold, Smith reassured the leaders in her property management department that their fears and concerns were both valid and shared. She also expressed her faith in their ability to handle whatever might come. She wrote, “Studies show 90% of what we worry about we have absolutely no control over. So, given that we know this fact, let’s pledge to focus on that 10% we possibly can do something about. ... Our employees look to their leaders, you, in times of uncertainty, and they need you now more than ever. This, too, comes with an overwhelming amount of responsibility and pressure. However, I have faith in all of you, from what I know about each of you, that you have, and will, rise to the occasion.”

Creative ways to beat the blues

JMG Realty’s efforts to encourage stress relief didn’t stop with one email, however. Acknowledging music’s power to soothe and bring people together, the company shared links to songs like The Beatles’ classic hit, “Let it Be,” and even produced a music video of its own in support of first responders, including not only medical, police, and fire personnel in the communities they serve, but also JMG’s own “first responders” such as maintenance workers and staff. Sporting T-shirts reading “Essential” on the front and “#JMGSTRONG” on the back, they delivered food and other supplies and chanted “NOPE,” and “YEP,” while holding aloft hand-lettered signs with questions like, “Is the office open?” NOPE! and “Does COVID-19 suck?” YEP! and “Can we use the amenities?” NOPE! and “Do we miss our residents?” YEP!

Smith also knew that having information on other resources they could access would help alleviate uncertainty and stress for employees. So she made sure to provide a link to the JMG Employee Assistance Program, which provides help with work-related stress, emotional distress, and choosing appropriate medical care, among other issues. She also outlined guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provided links to information and videos about identifying signs and sources of stress, along with ways to cope.

Smith said, “I remind our managers that it’s okay to have a bad day or to start your day over. We are human. We all have moments when things get to us or we are not at our best. Allow yourself a little grace when this happens. Learn from the experience. Apologize if you need to, and move on.”

Koback said SOM also has been extremely supportive of its property managers. “SOM benefits are very competitive and some of the best I’ve seen.
SOM immediately extended 80 hours of ‘COVID time’ to be used for health, day care, and taking care of immediate family members. The company has ensured that all employees have proper protective equipment, and the sites themselves have been modified to make sure everyone, including the residents, is in a clean environment.” SOM also believes that knowledge is power. “Weekly calls hosted by the company president to review all of the latest and greatest [information] have also gone a long way to keep employees ‘in the know.’”

The companywide calls serve another stress-reduction purpose, Koback said. “A small shoutout on a conference call or some small token of appreciation or recognition can go a very long way to making a manager feel appreciated and ready to accept the next challenge.”

Hearing from company leadership and seeing colleagues virtually is a definite pick-me-up, and some companies are going even further to promote stress relief and a sense of fun. Dana G. Pate, senior director of marketing at Rangewater Real Estate Group, said the company is mindful of its employees’ physical and emotional well-being. “The early weeks of the pandemic had us all searching for a sense of normalcy and connection as we navigated the unknown,” she says. “Valet Living Home and Torch Fitness have been valuable partners to Rangewater for years, and we found a natural opportunity to reengage our team members by way of their weekly ‘Mindful Meditations.’ There was an overwhelming response to these virtual experiences, and we’re grateful to have brought a sense of balance among chaos.”

Nicole McMath, director of fitness and wellness at Torch Fitness by Valet Living said, “The impact of meditation, self-centering, and breathing techniques relates to mental health as it promotes a clear mind and reduces stresses, both of which are essential for effective reasoning, decision making, happiness, and most daily tasks.”

One of McMath’s favorite activities during the pandemic has been a creative expression painting class conducted with Westdale Management. Kits filled with art supplies were provided to managers, assistant managers, and leasing office associates, who participated from their homes or offices. McMath said, “We had 10-12 community office teams in three different states participate. This event promoted both team-building and an outlet for emotions — frustration, confusion, happiness. Not only are we dealing with a pandemic, but also long overdue racial tension, so creating a safe space among colleagues to share their experiences and emotions through art was very meaningful.”

The silver lining in the COVID cloud

All in all, Smith believes there have been some positives from tackling the stresses of the pandemic together. “In a strange way, this has brought everyone closer together,” she said. “I have heard more managers commenting on how proud they are to work for JMG now than ever before. Yes, we’ve had challenging moments. We have had to shut sites down and quarantine entire teams. In general, everyone has responded very well, and we have been able to work through it together. I believe we will come out of this a stronger unit.”

Mark also sees the current stress-inducing situations as opportunities to improve as property managers and as human beings. “Stress is all around us. How we react and tackle issues is different for everyone,” he said. “It is on each of us to raise our hands when we need help. It is on all of us to identify people who are feeling low and offer help. In our industry, we have the privilege of touching millions of lives. We must stay focused on treating everyone with compassion and respect.”

Tips for Team Leaders

Katie Smith, human resources manager for JMG Realty Inc., sent an email offering four suggestions to her team leaders for helping multifamily-industry property managers on the front lines cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Create Connection

“When a crisis hits, the deepest and most needful parts of our human nature kick in – we want security. Without the basics, teams will cease to function. Therefore, it’s important to reconnect and to maintain human connection in any way we can. ... Find a way to meet with your teams ... keeping those safe social distancing measures in place.” Smith listed options such as calling into team meetings from home or office, or using video chat or Zoom to stay connected.

• Increase Empowerment

“As a leader, what do you think is your most powerful tool right now? Likeability? Vision? Competence? Believe it or not, it’s TRUST. ... Trust is particularly important in a crisis, when people have a sense of being out of control. Being in control of your life, decisions, and choices is essential for people’s health and well-being. Empowering staff with greater trust at a time when they feel they’ve lost their sense of control is a great thing to do. ... Give them an opportunity to be creative and shine. ... Extend trust and you’ll discover that your staff will rise to the challenge.” She acknowledged that the tendency toward micromanagement is only overcome by letting go of it, and expressed confidence that the staff would rise to the challenge.

• Improve Communication

“The more uncertainty there is around communication, the less likely communication is going to happen as you would like it to. You need to tie down these uncertainties to ensure good information flow. If your team does not feel there is effective and consistent communication from their leader, they will communicate through other means, thus causing inaccurate information to flow.” Smith suggested an open-door policy (even if it’s virtual) and encouraged leaders to invite property managers to speak up about their concerns, ask for help, and share ideas.

• Show Appreciation

Continue to show appreciation for dedicated employees still hard at work. “Employees may feel scared coming to work, but they choose to do so, for whatever the reason may be. Acknowledging this and thanking them resonates encouragement and shows that you care.”