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Employees in crisis: How managers can encourage staff to maintain a healthy work-life balance 

Chris Mullen, Executive Director, The Workforce Institute at UKG

The increase in remote working and altered workplace environments as a result of COVID-19 has led to a sharp upturn in employee burnout, with 39% of UK employees concerned about their employer’s ability to help them balance their workloads to prevent fatigue and burnout over the next 12 months. This stands true for both white collar and frontline workers who are trying to prove their worth by being ‘always on,’ with many employees unable to switch off and working longer hours to meet current demand while facing fears of being furloughed or part of budget cuts.

The advent of mobile technology has its perks in the working world, but in the COVID age employees are constantly connected via their mobile phones, checking work schedules to pick up open shifts or responding to emails at all hours. Holidays and times to recharge are taken much less frequently, compounded by the inability to travel, has meant that employees are facing minimal downtime and prone to burnout. The lines between work and personal life have become blurred, with the risk of working from home turning into living at work for many.

The impact of the pandemic on the working world is exemplified by recent research from The Workforce Institute at UKG, which analysed the top COVID-19 concerns of 4,000 employees and business leaders across the world. This research – entitled “Hindsight 2020: COVID-19 Concerns into 2021” – found that over half of UK workers (51%) stated they have been working more hours regularly since the start of the pandemic, calling for organisations to recognise this adjustment and respond accordingly.

To combat this issue going forward, business leaders must play a leading a role in helping staff to navigate a healthy work-life balance. Many employees are experiencing stress, anxiety, worry, loneliness, or depression unlike ever before – particularly as we find ourselves in the middle of the winter months – therefore finding ways to help them cope should be at the forefront of manager’s agendas.

The bottom line here is that the manager-employee connection is critical to the success of any organisation and business leaders should utilise this avenue to encourage staff to take time for themselves. Now more than ever, managers must be intentional with their employees and make extra efforts to tap into their emotional wellbeing to alleviate anxieties around the new world of work.

Maintaining personal connections 

Maintaining personal connections and building trust with individual employees are key components in helping staff navigate a healthy work-life balance. The more conversations managers have with their employees, the more comfortable they feel and, in turn, are more likely to open up about the pressures of their workload. Leveraging virtual platforms to strike up a conversation with employees to get a sense of how they are feeling while they are working remotely or in different environments is a smart tactic to address this growing concern.

While it can be said that remote working and social distancing measures in frontline workplaces is hindering the social aspect of work, meaningful connections can still happen virtually, assisted by the right technology. Over the past nine months, we have seen organisations flocking to video conferencing solutions to ensure they do not lose the relationships they have spent years building. Technology is also helping teams to have fun where possible, whether that be through virtual happy hours, trivia, or simply singing Happy Birthday to a team member.

Meetings and trainings specifically focused on relationship building are also imperative in bringing teams together. For my team in particular at UKG, I host regular Monday morning meetings to share our ‘sunshine and cloud moments’ from that particular week. I find that these conversations maintain the open and honest relationship my team has had over the years, and shows that I’m intentional in managing their wellbeing and happiness at work. It’s small touches like these that really show employees you care, and make a huge difference in maintaining a happy, and productive workplace. 

Chris Mullen
Chris Mullen

On the flip side, you can have too much of a good thing. Employees could become exhausted by continuous video meetings. For my team, we change it up by doing ‘walk and talk meetings’ where we can all be outside (in our respective locations) and chat on the phone with no video while getting some fresh air. Every employee is different and, as mangers, we must cater to their individual needs.

Perfecting coaching skillsets  

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Managers must also have the skills to serve as a career coach for their teams. Openly discussing workloads, interests, aspirations and other factors even outside of their current role helps form a closer connection and gives the manager a better view into how to help that employee grow and thrive within the organisation. High-performing businesses and managers actually implemented such roles prior to the pandemic, highlighting the critical importance of emotional wellbeing to overall business success. 

This impact of the coaching role on staff is demonstrated in our “Global State of Managers” survey, which looked at how employees rate their managers in certain aspects of their jobs. This research found that 70% of employees globally said their relationship with their manager is an extremely or very important factor when deciding to remain at their organisation. Ultimately, it is managers who take this job seriously and make extra effort to perfect their coaching skillsets who will better placed to safeguard their employees’ welfare.

To do this successfully, the manager-employee connection must be built on a foundation of trust and transparency, with managers setting clear and realistic expectations with their team. Having regular and honest conversations with staff will push them to open up about their workloads, while also enabling managers to recognise signs and symptoms of declining mental health. 

My top tip for managers looking to perfect their coaching skills is to have weekly 30-minute meetings with each team member, striking up a conversation and gaining a sense of what support they need for projects they are working on. These meetings are especially important in a virtual environment where you cannot simply hop over to someone’s desk. I tend to ask questions specifically pointed to the team member’s current situations, projects, or challenges, with the goal of seeing how I can help them overcome them. For example, I ask: ‘how are you today?’, ‘what’s on your mind?’, ‘do you feel safe and supported while working from home?’, ‘do you feel you have enough time to complete all your tasks?’ and ‘how can I support something that you are working on?’ Some employees might be too afraid to share their thoughts due to fears of losing their jobs, and managers must take extra steps to eradicate this concern.

Most importantly when coaching employees, managers must trust their team to get the job done. Constantly monitoring staff can negatively impact their productivity and wellbeing, calling for managers to avoid micromanaging at all costs. To put it simply, if you become too controlling, which is easy in a virtual environment, trust cannot exist in the manager-employee relationship. 

Stress management and self-care practices 

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that while many employees’ actual working style might not have changed, other parts of their lives have been turned upside down. From child and elderly care to the working situation of their spouse or partner, everything considered normal has been disrupted, and this has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of staff.

Introducing stress management and self-care practices are important steps in helping employees to cope with this disruption. When employees are actively taking time for themselves, it can decrease negative mental health symptoms and have a positive effect on their overall wellbeing. Simple things such as exercise, keeping a journal and taking care of mind and body can make a significant difference.

Here at UKG, we have put an increased emphasis on the mental health and overall wellness of our global workforce. For example, we offer staff simple initiatives such as virtual coffee breaks, support for working mums, and resources to engage families and their children. These practices are critical in supporting each employee and when we do this, they can bring their whole selves to work when needed, and care for their families when needed.

Having this sentiment come from the very top of an organisation is also important to set the tone. UKG CEO, Aron Ain, laid out a clear message at the beginning of the pandemic that everyone is encouraged to take the time they need to look after themselves, and manage their wellbeing. This is something all organisations and managers should bear in mind going forward.

While we might not be able to be together physically right now, the manager-employee relationship can still thrive with the right combination of technology, empathetic leadership, and coaching skills. With the sharp rise in employee burnout as a result of the new remote working culture, this relationship will be critical in helping employees in a crisis, and resolving any fears they may have.

The bottom line here is that, on average, an overworked employee is not as productive nor stable. It is therefore critical that business leaders are taking active steps to identify who these employees are, so they can work with them to encourage a healthy work-life balance. 

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