What You’ll Learn
- Employee wellness has become a core concern for the C-suite
- New research from Gallup shows rising pessimism among employees
- What communicators can do to help ease employee stress levels
In May, I packed up my car – including lots of snacks – and drove 13 straight hours from my home in North Carolina to where my parents live in central Illinois.
Both are in their 80s and have seen some recent health issues. I’ve been especially worried about them during the pandemic and just felt that I needed to be there.
For six weeks, I split my time between work calls and looking through old pictures, making family recipes, and planting tomatoes. On weekends, I would drive them through the countryside and along Apple Pie Ridge, where my Dad and his brothers would use stilts to detassel corn in the summertime. We ate buffalo catfish sandwiches (curbside, of course) at one of their favorite spots near the Illinois River.
Our time together was a gift.
But there were also pillboxes to count, physicians and home healthcare providers to consult, and TVs so loud I once had to take a call from the laundry room. Even after several weeks, they could never grasp that those little white things in my ears meant I was on a call.
I know that everyone reading this can relate.
Each of us is carrying a weight. Childcare issues. Financial worries. Personal health concerns. Everyone has something going on during this dark time – and it impacts our work. When we talk about “employee wellness,” it’s just a label for how our people deal with everything happening in their lives.
Dynamic Signal colleagues have been sharing their experiences about work during the pandemic. (You can read some of their stories here, here, and here.) I’m always amazed at how they’re adapting to challenging circumstances.
Yet, as we pass the four-month mark of Living with the Coronavirus, the strain is taking a toll. Maybe part of it is watching states reopen only to see COVID-19 cases surge. Also, the struggles of professional and college sports leagues to start playing again aren’t inspiring much confidence for regular folks about returning to normalcy – despite my Dad’s pleas for his beloved St. Louis Cardinals to hit the field.
For me, the confirmation of this increasing pessimism was startling new research from Gallup. A June poll found that “U.S. employees and managers are about 20% less likely” than they were a month earlier to strongly agree that:
- They’re prepared to do their jobs
- Their employer has communicated a clear COVID-19 response plan
- Their supervisor keeps them informed about developments
- Their organization cares about their well-being
“Most leaders are determined to help their people,” Gallup wrote. “But they’re mistaken if they assume their employees are well informed and equipped because sufficient time has passed since the pandemic began.”
In other words, employees are more fragile than ever, and organizations aren’t addressing those fraying nerves.
That’s why the internal communicator is essential.
Our messages to employees have to acknowledge what people are feeling. It doesn’t mean that anyone is less committed to their role and helping the company be successful. But they’re doing it from a worn-down place.
Here are some of my thoughts on how we can be part of the solution.
Stay the Course
In my social networks, communicators say that people in their organizations are tired of constantly hearing about the pandemic. I know some people are purposely tuning out news in their personal lives. They’re trying to ignore the coronavirus as much as possible to preserve their sanity.
The reality, however, is we do have to keep talking about it. Perhaps it’s not with the same intensity as when the lockdowns started. But people are still looking for direction, reassurance, and even motivation. They want to know about the business trajectory and where the company stands on social justice issues.
But to again quote Gallup, the “latest data suggest that leaders’ COVID-19 communication efforts have slipped.”
As communicators, we can’t get too weary of the pandemic ourselves. We need to keep providing a steady cadence of information that matters.
Acknowledge the Trust Gap
When Edelman conducted a special COVID-19 Trust Barometer early in the crisis, it found that communication from employers is the most credible source of information about the coronavirus. That said, the longer this drags on, the more that general skepticism grows about everything we read and hear.
People are concerned that they’re not getting reliable information from the sources they’ve traditionally trusted. I’m talking about those who are in control of the big decisions, like in our government. So, it’s understandable if there’s some carryover about if they can trust anyone.
That means we, as internal communicators, must be better. We have to be as accurate, trustworthy, and as transparent as humanly possible. We have to earn the faith of our employees every day because people increasingly are predisposed to question everything.
Listen, Listen, Listen
Listening is such an underrated skill. It’s also the essence of empathy – which we should all be showing right now. People respond better when they feel like you’re sincerely interested in hearing their concerns. Listening transforms lectures into conversations.
Employees need mechanisms to express what’s on their minds, whether through more frequent meetings, surveys, quick polls, or open forums on digital comms channels. Be respectful of their opinions. Don’t diminish or belittle their fears.
It’s also not enough to say that you want employee feedback. You need to act upon the concerns and suggestions of employees. If not, your people won’t believe that the company was listening at all.
Every Employee is Unique
In normal times, big organizational decisions usually have equity in mind. Everyone is treated the same. We’re all doing this. We all won’t be doing that. But nothing is normal anymore. And that approach doesn’t work as companies think about a return to the office.
Some people might be eager to get back to the workplace. Others are dreading it due to health reasons, childcare issues, and so on. It’s an entirely new environment.
The tone and content of our messages to employees must reflect an understanding that one size doesn’t fit all. People are feeling: “Who’s looking out for me?” It’s our job to make sure they know the company sees and hears them as individuals.
Little Things Matter
It meant a lot to me when our CEO spent time talking about mental health at a recent company meeting. He reminded everyone to make sure they use vacation time (even if for “staycations”) and to take breaks during the day. He also scheduled a company-wide day off.
It was reassuring for us to know that company leaders are aware of the stress we’re all feeling. Now, as communicators, we don’t have the power to grant time off. But we have to choose our words carefully as we convey messages to and from our leaders to help create a culture where employees matter. It also gives everyone confidence that we will emerge from this strong.
Of course, who knows when that day will come.