From its beginning, the pandemic caused high-stress levels for managers and employees across many industries — perhaps none more so than healthcare. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) across the country were thrust into the fray to help managers, supervisors and employees develop strategies and resources necessary to support productive workplaces during this unprecedented time. And for those in the healthcare field, the need for EAP support as the pandemic unfolded was particularly acute.
At the request of Baptist Health System, one of the largest health systems in Arkansas, we developed, implemented and analyzed survey research and made recommendations concerning exactly what employees and members of management needed to function well when stress levels were elevated. We wanted to learn exactly what employees and managers needed during this difficult time, how those needs changed over time and how their opinions changed as support resources and programs were implemented.
Here, we’ll explore what we found, with a particular emphasis on findings regarding the impacts to managers.
Assessing Work Impacts During the Pandemic
We conducted two rounds of survey research — initially in October/November 2020 and then again in July/August 2021. Both periods covered a time when COVID-19 cases were surging or at comparable levels across Arkansas. We received over 4,900 survey responses for each survey across 13 locations, classified into 16 job categories. We wanted to learn how leadership could adapt their approach to supporting the well-being of their employees and managers during the pandemic.
Our survey was designed to assess the impact of COVID-19 on employee well-being and the work environment in four main areas: health and safety; stress management; support at work; and manager difficulty. The surveys were conducted both from an employee and manager/supervisor standpoint.
Addressing Key Findings and Implementing Interventions
Not surprisingly, we found that managers were struggling to keep employees motivated throughout the pandemic, with 76% of managers surveyed stating that they found it somewhat to very difficult to maintain employee motivation at work. Eighty-four percent of managers found that they struggled to keep high morale.
Further, 19% of managers said they needed additional or higher staffing levels; 29% of managers stated that communication between leadership and managers was crucial; and 26% said that they needed direct support from their leadership team.
Following the initial survey, interventions put in place to help support managers included:
- Streamlined COVID information sharing in a centralized information hub.
- Manager check-ins with employees regularly to talk about how they are personally and professionally.
- Leader “rounding” to ensure leadership was personally interacting and supporting managers.
- Campaigns aimed at increasing awareness of EAP resources and support.
- Campaigns communicating overall mental health awareness, resources and skills.
Tracking Follow-Up Results
The follow-up survey showed statistically significant improvements in all areas of health and safety, support at work, stress management and manager difficulty. When asked what was most helpful to managers, 35% of managers/supervisors identified communication as the biggest help in lifting the burdens placed by COVID-19. In addition, 17% said that support from their administration was the biggest help; 10% said that their team was their biggest support during the pandemic; and another 10% said that support from their direct manager was the most helpful factor.
Communication and Leader Visibility Matters Most in Times of Crisis
The findings of our research are clear: Communication matters. When employees and managers/supervisors do not feel fully informed, it can be tough for them to move forward with confident decision-making.
Our survey also found that the presence of leadership matters to managers/supervisors and employees. Whenever possible, conversations should be held in person. Employees and managers both communicated that seeing leadership in the trenches with them made a difference in feeling “in the loop.”
Focus on Soft Skills for Effective Management
In times of crisis, soft skills also become increasingly critical to both leadership and managers. Managers clearly noted that they needed additional resources in areas such as motivation, morale and mental well-being support.
Primary Recommendations and Key Takeaways
Our research allowed us to design several recommendations that can support managers during a crisis. Here are four important points to recognize and understand:
- Leaders and managers must provide updates and clarity around policies as confusion quickly leads to stress, frustration and lowered morale. It’s important to explain the reasoning behind procedures as well and to keep employee safety at the forefront of every explanation. Clear communication reduces stress and improves overall well-being.
- Leadership visibility matters. In times of crisis, it’s key that leaders show appreciation and frequently check in on employees and mid-level managers. A physical presence is impactful.
- Stress management tools need to be provided for employees in times of crisis. Leadership team members must make clear that they understand employees are under high levels of stress. Awareness campaigns to help employees and supervisors be aware of the EAP’s resources, how to access EAP support and how best to utilize EAP resources were very helpful in improving employees’ and supervisors’ overall feeling of support.
- Leaders often feel they must provide solutions immediately or on their own but including employees in the conversation, both improve the brainstorming process and helps employees feel valued. This involvement often provides useful insight into the employee experience that would otherwise be missed or overlooked.
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