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Three COVID-era lessons to help support employee wellbeing in times of crisis

Organisations can learn a lot from how they acted during COVID to help protect employee wellbeing

The workplace challenges encountered during COVID lockdowns seem like a distant memory. People have since moved on to focus on more immediate crises such as the rising cost of living and the war in Ukraine. But organisations can learn a lot from how they acted during COVID to help protect employee wellbeing.

This could help employers deal with future crises such as other viral pandemics, which are expected to occur more often in the future. Companies may even be able to support employee wellbeing better than they did during COVID.

We have conducted research in this area in collaboration with Shaun Pichler of California State University, Wendy Casper of the University of Texas and Pawan Budhwar of Aston University. We have conducted a number of studies of worker wellbeing in the UK, US and India during the first wave of the pandemic.

In one study, we found that employees who trusted their senior leadership team’s initial response to the pandemic, and felt their line manager prioritised their needs, reported higher wellbeing later on in the pandemic. This is because they were more likely to feel they had psychological resources, such as optimism, hope and resilience, to cope during the pandemic.

Importantly, our research shows that feeling confident in, and supported by, your leaders helps you feel more psychologically able. This, in turn, helps you maintain positive wellbeing during a crisis.

In a related study, we showed how social support can help you to effectively adapt to changing circumstances, which also protects your wellbeing. Employees who felt supported by their organisation, as well as by their family, were better able to adapt to pandemic-related changes in their work and home life. Adapting to changes included learning new skills, developing new ways to cope, and being open to doing things differently. All of this links to better wellbeing.

Our research into these COVID-era strategies can help guide companies on how to support workers during other crises. We found there are three key ways to protect employee wellbeing during such times.

1. Build trust

Senior leaders in organisations can show that they are trustworthy in a number of ways. They can demonstrate they are competent and capable in making good decisions during critical times. They can also show they care about employees and are keeping their best interests at heart, as well as being sincere and acting with integrity.

Line managers…have a role in reinforcing and helping to facilitate trust.

When communicating difficult decisions, leaders should be transparent and keep lines of communication open with employees. It is also crucial to translate words into actions. So if an employer commits to avoiding job cuts during a crisis, they should make sure to act accordingly. If things change and management has to make difficult decisions, they should communicate openly about this and consult with employees.

Line managers also have a role in reinforcing and helping to facilitate trust. They can do this by focusing on employee wellbeing and development, and by helping their teams adapt to change.

2. Harness the protective effects of social support

Having a range of both formal and informal support systems within an organisation can be helpful. Formal examples include employee assistance programmes, flexible working policies, and wellbeing resources such as mental health apps.

Employees should also be able to access more informal support by confiding in their line manager. Asking for help from colleagues can also be helpful, as can sharing ideas and collaborating on ways to manage stress during crises.

As our research shows, reaching out to family and friends is also an important source of support. Loved ones can provide emotional support but can also support by, for example, helping with childcare or other caregiving responsibilities such as food drop-offs, dog-walking or visiting elderly relatives.

3. Adapt to thrive rather than cope to survive

Employers and managers can help employees to not just develop an adaptive mindset, but also to find practical ways to effectively adjust their behaviour during a crisis. This could include regular discussions or personal activities that help people to reflect on and interpret what has happened to them that day or week.

This can help maintain a sense of meaning and purpose during times of uncertainty and change. Such exercises could be tied in with personal mindfulness or goal setting activities. They could also be discussed during weekly team meetings to encourage employees to set small incremental goals or use coping techniques more often.

Regular team meetings can provide a chance to discuss employee wellbeing.

Other practical ways to foster an “adapt to thrive” mindset can include helping people to be optimistic, hopeful, resilient and confident in their ability to do their job, even in challenging circumstances.

The aim is to help people adapt in ways that allow them to grow and develop as a person, while also keeping them grounded in the reality that crisis situations often involve important changes for the sake of safety and survival.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all here. Mental health is complex and varies by individual as well as according to wider socioeconomic circumstances. Organisations should therefore seek to understand and empathise with their employees, and help them to find approaches that work best for their individual needs and situations.

About the Author

Dr Luke Fletcher is an Associate Professor in Human Resource Management at the University of Bath School of Management, having previously worked at Aston Business School, Aston University. Luke is a Chartered Psychologist and is an Academic Member of the CIPD. His research has been published in a range of academic and practitioner outlets, and focuses on topics associated with employee engagement, meaningful work, and diversity and inclusion.

Nishat Babu is a Chartered Psychologist and Lecturer in the Work and Organisation Department at Loughborough Business School, with expertise in a number of areas; including leadership, leadership development, micro-level social responsibility, wellbeing, and global working.

This article was first published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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