By Stephen Koss, EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, organizations across the region are increasingly being confronted by employee well-being related challenges. The role of leaders must now, therefore, include paying close attention to potentially lethal physical health risks and the effects of increased stress, fear, and uncertainty. The focus must be on improving the well-being stamina of EY professionals as we chart a course through this unprecedented global situation.
Depending on the industry, the current crisis has had a varied impact on organizations. However, the single common denominator for everyone is that life is undoubtedly more stressful.
Frontline workers in essential services are running harder and faster against the backdrop of an invisible and potentially deadly enemy. Beyond keeping people physically protected, employers must also manage staff exhaustion and the stress that comes from the pressure to perform during a crisis. Many will have feelings of guilt if work prevents them from being able to care for their own family. Others will be suffering as they choose to self-isolate from loved ones for fear of transmission.
Meanwhile, those now working remotely face the mental stress of isolation and the physical challenges of new workspaces – kitchen tables, bedrooms, and balconies – that are hardly fit for purpose. Staff may even be juggling business commitments with increased childcare and home-schooling responsibilities, and worries about older, immunocompromised, or absent friends and family members.
For both groups, supporting well-being effectively requires a holistic approach that addresses mental health and engagement with the psychosocial considerations in this new working environment.
This raises the question: what should leaders be focusing on in the coming weeks and months?
Beyond physical protection measures, ensure that employees know where to find information, guidance, and support for mental health. Maintain open channels of communication to hear how employees are feeling and, more importantly, listen and respond. Consider establishing a hotline or central contact point for employees and develop in-house channels and hubs to respond promptly to employee queries and concerns.
However, do not rely on people to self-report. Two-way conversations are essential toward building trust. It is vital to monitor mental well-being by creating structured and regular opportunities for employees to ‘check-in’ with managers and colleagues – and encourage peer support. Share techniques to stay calm, present, and focused. Reinforce the importance of being physically active to reduce stress, as well as mindfulness for mental clarity.
Make everyone aware that significant changes in a team member’s personality or work productivity may be signs that a person is struggling. If possible, leverage technology like analytics to identify vulnerable ‘hot-spots’. Put mechanisms in place to ensure at-risk employees are reached out to immediately with empathy and concern – and not just with practical solutions.
Research in Hong Kong after the 2003 SARS outbreak found that increased social connectedness can offset the negative mental health effects from the pandemic. For many people, connection with colleagues can provide an important buffer to their feelings of social isolation and disconnection. Encourage employees to stay regularly connected with virtual video meetings.
With employees feeling overwhelmed and anxious, ask people leaders to make themselves available to staff to talk about their fears, answer questions and reassure them about work and personal issues.
When people are working remotely, it is more important than ever to routinely check-in, not only about work, but also to see how people are doing. Ask direct questions: “How are you managing? What would you most like support with right now?”
It is hard to find the energy to stay motivated in a time of crisis. Setting a clear and short roadmap for your organization’s objectives will mobilize and galvanise your employees around a common goal. This is also a good time to rearticulate your values, which help keep people grounded in the familiar and give them direction for navigating uncertainty.
As you clarify plans to lead through this period of change, align your approach for managing COVID-19 crisis with your broader purpose. Embed your organizational purpose and values into all communications as you share your roadmap across the organization. Give recognition and ‘shout outs’ for those who are living the values during this time.
Keep communicating, even when you do not know the answer. If you say nothing, people fill the gaps with conjecture and worry.
The sudden shift to working from home has the potential to derail performance. Make sure employees have the necessary infrastructure, flexibility, and support to do their job to the best of their abilities under the current circumstances.
During such times, we must acknowledge different work patterns, particularly around remote working, and virtual teaming. Empower your middle management – a highly influential cohort – to drive new ways of working.
Consider opportunities to upskill employees and create cross skill teams. Provide access to tools and online learning platforms to empower employees, increase organizational capability, workforce flexibility and resilience. Where they feel like they can form part of an organizational solution, you will see improved employee engagement.
Importantly, no matter what disruptive forces and how stressful the scenario, humans are at the centre of every organization. In the toughest times, the human spirit dictates that leaders will emerge, often from the most unexpected places. To nurture these fledgeling leaders in our organizations, our support should be empowering and self-sustaining. We must encourage individual employees to take ownership and accountability for their own well-being, so they come through the crisis more resilient than when they went in.
As the pandemic continues to unfold, leaders must remain focused on ensuring our employees are not just physically safe, but psychologically and socially supported, so they emerge from the crisis ready to embrace the opportunities on the other side.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.