The Emotional Side of Employee “Safety”

Posted by Mike Ryan

The recent jobs report was horrific by any measure. In depression-era like fashion, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the United States economy shed off 20.5 million jobs in just one month. Add in the previous totals and a whopping 36 million people found themselves suddenly out of work. But let us remember one thing: This job loss is different in both size and scope.

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The meteoric rise in unemployment did not follow falling forecasts or anemic numbers. In fact, we went from a strong and robust economy to one that literally fell ill upon itself. The shutdown (and everything that came along with it) stemmed from a self-induced isolation.  And while no one knows what the future will look like, it will be your people—and by that I mean the motivated and engaged workforce who helped grow your company in the first place—that will lead it out of this crisis.

But right now, it is time to steady the ship. With all the talk centered on fear and frustration, what can companies do to calm their employees’ nerves? They can start by remembering that working “safely” has emotional components to it that need just as much attention.

Becoming a “safer” place to work

Even though wide scale reopenings may be months away, most of the chatter surrounding workforce readiness centers on the physical aspects of getting prepared. Staggered work hours, deep office cleanings, the social distancing of workstations, and other steps like reexamining kitchen and common area policies get the most attention. And while all of that is good for the day when offices finally do reopen, who is to say that while we remain hunkered down in our own homes an employee’s emotional safety is not just as important.

Now more than ever, workers have a lot on their minds. On a personal level they are worried about the health of family members and loved ones. On the professional side, job security and finances dominate their concerns as home and office lives collide.

Employees are scared, unsure and anxious.  So, what can companies do right now to help mitigate some of that uncertainty? How can they remove a chunk of that daily angst and make the workday as emotionally safe as possible?

Emotional safety starts with the manager

Frequent interactions between manager and employee has always been a big part of the performance improvement process. Regular check-ins help to resolve issues in a timely manner while also providing opportunities for real-time coaching and guidance.  But as the fallout from the coronavirus rages on and our work practices have changed, open lines of communication have taken on a new meaning. As employees work from home, and do so miles apart from their structured support systems, it is critical that they have regular communication with their bosses.

Good leaders are—by their nature—great listeners.  It’s time to expand the role those skills play within the employee/employer dynamic. By listening to what others are saying, attentive managers are better prepared to make tough business decisions; they pick up useful pointers along the way that they share with others, but mostly they build up mutual levels of trust and loyalty with their team members.

Feeling safe at work (or anywhere else for that matter) is a result of being able to communicate openly. The new reality brought on by COVID-19 is taxing everyone’s mental outlook. And right now, employees do not need any additional pressures put on them. What they do need are bosses who come to the conversation with an empathetic ear. Today, more than ever, managers should get to know an employee’s home life situation. They should ask about family and friends and they should probe for issues that are causing professional or personal problems.

Everyone at your organization is going through an extraordinary amount of change. Variations in our life, no matter what brings them on, can be unsettling. Change of this magnitude, however, is unprecedented in its impact. It comes with its own levels of fear and individual struggle. Having a “psychological safety net” in the form of an empathetic boss brings a little calmness to what has become a crazy situation. At the same time, it will work to maximize an employee’s level of trust in the company’s leadership and it will enhance both their innovation and productivity while they remain hunkered down.

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A little autonomy goes a long way

Managers can mitigate the impact COVID-19 has had on work habits and goals by just being there for their employees.  They can remove confusion by explaining decisions; they can help solve unexpected problems by suggesting solutions, or they can simply lend a friendly ear when the employee needs a sounding board. In short, they can establish closer lines of communication with their workers which, in turn, can create a more “emotionally safe” working environment for the employee no matter where they do their job from.

The work still needs to get done, of course. Except the circumstances have changed. Remote workers do not have as much access to support as they used to. The IT guy is not down the hall anymore, for example, and that more experienced colleague is not sitting at the next desk. Mostly, that feeling of teamwork (that comes with collaborating with coworkers) does not come as naturally as it used to.

Of course, some employees would say there is a advantage to being on their own: There is no one to lean on, of course, but there is no one watching over your shoulder either. They see their newfound independence as empowering. As they quarantine themselves, they feel a degree of autonomy which has improved their productivity during the pandemic.

That is why good managers focus more on their employees’ output, then they do on their day-to-day processes. Sure, they make themselves available to answer questions and explain away whatever difficulties surface with solutions that make sense. But the best leaders do not micromanage from afar. Instead, they provide ample room for their employees to complete their jobs in the best way they can under the circumstances.   With so many people juggling both work and family commitments, giving workers a wider berth in what gets done and how it gets accomplished goes a long way toward making them feel like they are in control, connected, and above all emotionally safe.

To discuss how our employee engagement can benefit your organisation, contact us today. Or check out how we have successfully implemented reward solutions in these businesses.

A 25 year industry veteran, Mike is responsible for expanding CR Worldwide’s business portfolio in the United States.