Listening to employees’ stories can help build empathy and resilience
Facing a landscape of coronavirus restrictions until spring at the earliest means building resilience among employees should be top of the agenda for business leaders. Francoise Woolley looks at coping strategies for managers and how showing vulnerability can help us all feel better.
The impact the pandemic has had on our individual and collective wellbeing – particularly in terms of anxiety, isolation and fatigue – has been described as a “shadow pandemic”. But it has not been all doom and gloom.
The past nine months has given us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and, crucially, given line managers the chance to work on those so-called soft management skills. There are the three lessons we should all carry into the new year.
Those of us working from home have found ourselves longing for the days of accidental encounters and impromptu conversations. Whether you are interacting with colleagues virtually or face-to-face in a socially distanced way, it’s important to make time for these human connections.
One of the privileges of my job, as head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas, is that I get to hear lots of stories. For me the pandemic has made us all focus on each other’s personal situations – whether it’s juggling work with young children, supporting shielding relatives or managing mental ill health.
I believe managers need to go beyond talking and listening to actively reach out to their staff. Some startling recent statistics brought this home. According to the Office for National Statistics, the start of November with its darker evenings saw Britain’s highest levels of acute loneliness (8% of adults who were “always or often lonely”, representing 4.2 million people).
Being lonely isn’t always about being alone. You can sometimes feel most lonely in a crowd: alone with your worries and the sense that no one understands you. My tip to managers would be to reach out and hear those individual stories and if people are struggling, then be quick to offer them support.
The last time we suffered an economic recession was a little over 10 years ago. This time we also have a worldwide pandemic to contend with.
If the past teaches us anything, it is that we can’t hope to ‘build back better’ without trust. Research from the University of Bath found that one of the chief ways in which leaders can generate trust is to show vulnerability.
In the current context this means managers being open with their staff about the challenges they are facing, which in turn encourages staff to share, collaborate and innovate.
Acas, like other organisations has had some real challenges – not least moving at pace from an organisation with 12% of staff working mostly from home, to one with practically 100% doing so.
We used our Framework for Positive Mental Health to keep ourselves in check in terms of supporting our own staffs’ health and wellbeing.
Managing the wellbeing of your staff when you can’t see them can be tricky – how do you spot the signs of stress or anxiety, for example?
Managers are not expected to be experts in mental health but with a recent survey from the Scottish Trades Union Congress showing a growing lack of trust in employers to safeguard mental health, I would argue that building trust by creating an environment of psychological safety is more crucial than ever before.
With another lockdown diminishing many of the mechanisms people use to cope, manager support is even more crucial at this time”
This can mean telling staff we value them, wish to support them while also showing vulnerability in that we will not always have all the answers.
Let’s face it, 2020 was a huge test to our resilience and the start of 2021 will test it even further. Many have likened the pandemic experience to one of grief – with the acute loss of emotional security, safety and, sadly, for some, loved ones.
With another lockdown diminishing many of the mechanisms people use to cope, manager support is even more crucial at this time.
It’s important to give staff permission to take time to look after themselves, to use the coping strategies that can help such as exercise, breaks away from the desk and social interactions at work.
Incentives to take leave may not be there with staff perhaps wanting to wait and have what feels like a real holiday in a few months’ time. However, time to recharge is important and this is certainly something managers should be discussing with their staff.
Managers – let’s not forget you in all this. You need to give permission to be kind to yourselves, permission to be at peace with your worries and anxieties, and reach out for your own support.