Why returning to ‘business as usual’ during COVID-19 jeopardizes employee productivity and mental health

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The coronavirus pandemic has shown few signs of abating, and while some people have managed to adjust to the changes and disruptions to work and life, the endless challenges are a major stressor for mental health and employee productivity.

For employers, while resuming “business as usual” as quickly as possible may be an initial instinct, this could be counterproductive and overlook critical challenges their employees are facing, according to Laura Hamill, an organization psychologist at Limeade, an employee experience software company.

“There are a lot of people who are just really tired and exhausted by the stress of not knowing when this will be over, and it’s pretty devastating to our emotional health,” Hamill says. “I’m worried that leadership might get tired of the prolonged nature of what’s happening and want to get back to business, but they still need to have that same sense of empathy and compassion and continue to be flexible.”

Read more: 10 ways employers can support behavioral health

During the pandemic, employers who show empathy toward employees have been able to foster a more loyal and productive workforce. According to a survey by McKinsey, employees are four times more likely to feel engaged and six times more likely to have a positive sense of well-being when they feel their employer cares about them. Seventy-eight percent of employees would even work longer hours for an employer they consider to be empathetic to their needs, according to Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study.

“When organizations systematically show that they care for their employees, they get better results,” Hamill says. “Employees stay longer, they feel more included and they're more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work.”

However, the pandemic has also revealed a disconnect between leadership and their employees. While the Businessolver study found that 97% of CEOs believe they have been empathetic toward employee well-being, only 69% of employees agree. Forty-one percent of employees feel their workplace is not offering benefits or programs to help improve their well-being, according to a survey by MetLife.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical to understand employees’ needs,” says Todd Katz, executive vice president of group benefits for MetLife. “In this time of crisis and beyond, providing a mix of benefits and programs can help mitigate stress, improve employees’ holistic well-being and support them when they need it most, which in turn can help bolster engagement and loyalty from the workforce.”

To ensure business success during COVID-19 and beyond and close the “empathy gap,” employers should focus on ramping up the frequency of communication with their workforce, Hamill says. An employee engagement survey, for example, is an opportunity to hear directly from employees and shouldn’t be overlooked as an end-of-the-year task.

“Most companies have ways to really listen to their employees, but they're not as robust or thoughtful as they could be,” she says. “Instead of just thinking about doing an engagement survey once or twice a year, how can you listen to your employees in a much more frequent way? And then more importantly, how can you understand and act on that feedback?”

Hamill advises employers to take notes from employers who seem to communicate and engage with their workforce “on steroids.”

“They have these amazing town halls. They’re transparent in sharing information and bringing people along with their business strategy. Their communication is robust and authentic,” Hamill says. “Communication and engagement is ingrained in everything that business does, so emphasizing that is really important to supporting the well-being of employees.”

While a return to normalcy may not be in the immediate future, practicing empathy toward employees now will set a company up for success well beyond this crisis.

“Work can be better from lots of different angles and in order for real change to happen, you have to be able to envision it first. You have to be able to say, I could see how caring for people and being more human at work could happen in my company,” she says. “This global pandemic has forced us to see that when you treat people like human beings, when you care about them, it's just better for the employees — and it's better for your business.”

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Employee productivity Employee engagement Mental health Employee communications Coronavirus