Caring Conversations
#evolve Magazine
January 22, 2021

Four words. “How are you doing?” It’s a simple question that we’re not asking enough in today’s workplace, because — let’s face it — we’re all a little edgy these days. We’ve been through it this past year, and 2020 isn’t finished affecting us yet.

As HR leaders charting a path forward during the next 12 to 24 months, we must account for the mounting toll the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is taking on employees and train our managers to integrate empathy and care into their daily employee discussions. Long-term teleworking, mental health issues, substance abuse and workplace gender inequities are all on the rise. Having authentic conversations with your workforce about these and other personal challenges during this time will better position your employees — and your organization — for success in coming months and years.

Your managers are your ‘feet on the street,’ your best connection to your employees, many of whom are treading water right now. Sixty-nine percent of workers say this pandemic is the most stressful period of their entire professional career, with 88% reporting they’ve experienced moderate to extreme stress, according to a recent mental health survey.

Checking in early and often with employees accomplishes a couple of things. First, it shows you care. Simply asking how they’re doing can help ease worker stress and tension and impart a level of confidence and trust that’s so crucial when managing remote employees today. Managers can also better understand specific personal challenges and proactively respond with a support strategy, if necessary, before they interfere with the employee’s performance. And last, these conversations can also serve as the proverbial canary in a coal mine, providing clues that bigger, more serious issues are at play within your workforce.

A quick word here. “Checking in” with employees should not be confused with “checking up” on them or their work. The latter is a form of micromanagement that undermines trust and erodes worker confidence, ultimately worsening their stress levels and job performance.

Here are a few hot-button issues in today’s workplace, and how to start caring conversations.


Teleworking

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 25% of workers were telecommuting in August 2020, but that number might get closer to 20% early in 2021. By comparison, only 7% of employees worked from home in 2019.

As we plan for the future, we must work harder to engage remote employees and better understand their struggles, big or small. You can’t fix what you don’t know about or can’t see. For example, a member of my communications team has been working from home throughout the pandemic and recently joked about her “office” chair: a stiff, wooden kitchen table chair. I had no idea! We quickly arranged to get her a proper office chair.

Many employers are planning to support long-term remote workers with better tools, resources and financial subsidies to offset home office costs, but only 10% to 20% actually provide the support today, according to a recent survey of large employers.


Mental health and substance abuse

It’s heartbreaking to know that your employees may be silently suffering from treatable illnesses during the pandemic, but it’s happening. One in five U.S. adults — 19% — say their mental health has declined in the past year, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently revealed that

13 percent of U.S. adults have started or increased their substance abuse during the pandemic to cope with the stress. The thing is, most people want help and support during this time. According to an APA report, the majority of adults — 61% — admitted they could have used more emotional support than they received in the past year, and 23% said they could’ve used a lot more support.


Gender workplace equity

Professionally speaking, women have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Jobs held by women are nearly twice as vulnerable during the pandemic as jobs held by men, according to a recent Harvard Business Review analysis. The avalanche of 865,000 women who dropped out of the U.S. workforce in September represented a stunning 80% of the 1.1 million U.S. job losses that month, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Further, women are receiving fewer raises and promotions than men, according to CNBC.com.

In fact, the pandemic is having such a dire and disparate impact on women that the International Monetary Fund announced in October that it wants to step in with targeted policy intervention to prevent further widening of the gender gap during this time.


Start these conversations today

Regularly schedule time with each employee, preferably over a video call at a time when you’re able to focus and listen. Sincerely ask how they’re doing and provide a neutral, ‘safe’ environment for them to respond without fear of repercussion.

“How are you doing?” is a good icebreaker and it’s a question you can ask frequently. More importantly, listen. Listen to the background noise. Listen to the tone of their voice. If they’re brief, listen. If they ramble, listen. Listen and look for cues and ask follow-up questions.

Also, ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. “What are three challenges you encountered at home this week?” Or, you can add a little humor and try a different angle. “Tell me the strangest item sitting on your desk right now.” This can set the conversation on a different path that reveals an issue or challenge you would’ve never otherwise discovered. At the end of the day, the priceless insights gleaned from these caring conversations can be used to develop proactive HR policies, tools and resources that better support employees who are struggling, while helping all employees more easily adjust to and thrive in our evolving new normal.

Related WorldatWork Resources
Four-Day Workweek Experiment in UK Shows Positive Early Returns
Virgin Atlantic Announces New Gender Policy
What It Takes to be an 'Age-Friendly' Workplace
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