Employee engagement in America is at a staggeringly low level, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Workplace well-being expert and CEO of Motion Infusion, Laura Putnam, explains how business leaders can start to remedy the problem.
Author, “Workplace Wellness That Works”
Anyone who’s even so much as glanced at a newspaper recently knows America is experiencing a work crisis, or rather, several crises all at once. From the much-discussed labor shortage to the so-called “Great Resignation,” to staggeringly high levels of employee dissatisfaction, it’s clear workers in the United States are struggling to return to the office.
For nearly two years, the American workplace has been in a state of flux thanks to the pandemic, as managers and employees try to balance remote work with topsy-turvy home lives.
Laura Putnam, a leading expert on well-being at work and the author of “Workplace Wellness That Works,” explained that the mental health toll taken by the pandemic and social distancing protocols negatively impacted employee engagement.
Putnam says that in her work with both large and small organizations across a wide range of industries, some employees found greater autonomy and freedom in remote work, while others suffered from extreme isolation. Working mothers in particular struggled to balance their jobs and childcare.
“What became clear was that the measures we needed to take to protect our physical health — social distancing, wearing masks, working from home, and taking on additional caretaking roles — took a huge toll on our mental health and emotional well-being,” Putnam said. “Rates of depression tripled; levels of loneliness skyrocketed, especially for young people; and rates of stress and burnout went through the roof, with 89 percent of employees reporting their work life was getting worse.”
The result has been a steady decline in employee engagement and a record 4.4 million people who left their jobs in September.
According to Putnam, lack of employee engagement, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, is not a new problem, and can be disastrous for both individual workers and an organization’s bottom line. As she puts it, a disengaged employee is one who shows up for work but is mentally checked out, dragging down the rest of the team and leaving the slack to be picked up by their coworkers, who in turn often become resentful and burnt out.
“Productivity, collaboration and quality of work wane, while turnover, safety incidents, and absenteeism accelerate,” Putnam said, adding that these factors cost U.S. businesses alone more than $225 billion each year.
So what are managers and employers to do? And how should they manage returning to the office, especially if workers are in no hurry to give up the freedom and flexibility offered by remote work?
Putnam advised that companies should not just rely on go-to self-care prescriptions for wellness like yoga and meditation. In fact, these “solutions” may do more harm than good because they ignore the deeper underlying problems. Instead, companies should tap into their leadership.
“Studies show employee stress and burnout are less about an individual’s capacity to ‘manage their stress’ and more about the workplace itself. For example, one of the biggest drivers of stress is a lack of autonomy,” Putnam said. “Therefore, one of the most powerful ways that business and HR leaders can help to mitigate employee stress is by empowering managers to support greater autonomy within their teams, and providing flexible scheduling and opportunities for job crafting.”
While some workers may be reluctant to return to in-person work, Putnam clarified some benefits of meeting face-to-face.
“Returning to in-person work will force millions of Americans to interact with people outside of their pandemic bubble. While these interactions may pose challenges, they will also open up new opportunities for more authentic and meaningful connections — something many workers are seeking,” she said. “For example, employees of an insurance services client of ours reported a decrease in their level of community well-being due to remote work. Now that they are returning to work, there is a palpable sense of relief across the workforce as coworkers are able to reconnect face-to-face.”
Prioritizing mental health
Another vitally important way for managers to improve employee engagement is by prioritizing emotional well-being and destigmatizing discussions about mental health, especially within the context of their team.
“One of the best practices business leaders can implement is to focus their efforts and attention on the team. The team is where culture lives,” Putnam said.
Employees need to feel safe talking about their mental well-being with their managers, but unfortunately, Putnam pointed out, a recent Paychex study indicated that over half of employees are afraid to talk about mental health with their boss.
“To remedy this gap, managers need to be inspired, empowered, and given the tools to become ‘Multipliers of Well-Being’ by becoming active and explicit supporters of well-being within their organization,” she said.
Overall, Putnam offers three suggestions to HR and business leaders who want to see their workers be more engaged at work: Recognize, discern, and step-up.
“Recognize that the employee is in the driver’s seat. Workers are well aware that they can afford to be more selective, given the number of open positions,” she explained. “Therefore, employers need to discern what employees want: more meaning, more flexibility, more inclusivity, and more well-being.
“Above all, employees want to know the company they work for actually cares about them. Employees want to feel like they matter. Therefore, the time is now for business and HR leaders to step up to meet these newly defined expectations.”