After experiencing over a year of living with COVID-19, many people are feeling stressed and under pressure. For those whose workload has increased or always been too high, HR and business leaders need to be mindful that continuous pressure over a long period can lead to employee burnout, and in some cases, mental health problems like depression or anxiety.
While it can be healthy to have a bit of stress to spur you on – some people relish it and produce their best work when the heat is on – when the chips are down, employees need to feel they have the backing of the business and are not beavering away or taking the flak in isolation. They need to be able to discuss problems openly and to feel it’s OK to say if they are not coping.
So, what can HR do to support employees when the pressure is on?
1. Foster a supportive atmosphere
Often, it’s the small actions that count the most. A team dealing with a crisis, for example, will appreciate someone senior taking an active interest, providing clear guidance and maybe even rolling their sleeves up to help. People who are working up against seemingly impossibly tight deadlines need someone to notice they haven’t had time to eat and to order pizzas in!
Think about how you can put support mechanisms in place and encourage people across the business to develop a shared sense of responsibility. ‘In the moment’ support can be highly valuable, so companies should help facilitate this by giving staff the opportunity and space to access support from their peers.
2. Help employees maintain balance
Employees are more likely to thrive in a culture that supports flexible working and takes account of their priorities, situations and the way they feel they work best. The ongoing hybrid-working discussion reflects an appetite for increased flexibility, but employers need to make sure they’re making choices that work well for their workforce – rather than jumping on a bandwagon with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Alongside flexible working, there is also the opportunity for organisations to promote activities that might encourage people to maintain a balanced perspective and lifestyle, including healthy eating initiatives, exercise classes, book/music/film clubs, or participation in CSR initiatives, such as helping out at local charities or mentoring. You could ask for funding to kick-start internal initiatives, reach out to local organisations in need of help and, of course, invite ideas or publicise activities and positive outcomes through your HR portal.
Saying it’s OK to switch off from work is important, too. The ONS states that, ‘In 2020, those who worked from home to any degree worked more hours (32.3 on average per week) than those who never worked from home (27.7).’ So the pandemic has likely exacerbated our ‘always on’ culture. HR can do their bit by making it explicit that down time is important and discouraging out of hours communications (emergencies aside); some organisations have gone as far as banning employees from sending emails out of working hours altogether. France set the precedent for this back in 2017.
3. Be clear about your purpose
Some companies have a clear purpose that is easily identifiable and understood by the people who work for them. This is not, however, the case in every business.
Communicating the business’ purpose and vision clearly to employees helps them make sense of what they are doing and to understand how their personal contribution fits into the bigger picture. This is particularly important during tough times, such as the last 15 months, when people need some kind of ‘reference point’ to help them cope with change and ambiguity.
4. Build skills and confidence
Providing opportunities for people to learn and grow is an important part of helping them feel equipped to cope under pressure. While some employees thrive when thrown in at the deep end, a lot don’t.
Managers need to help people in their team build confidence by identifying individual training needs and helping people improve their skills through appropriate support and development. This doesn’t have to mean sending people on expensive training courses – coaching, mentoring and job swaps are all effective ways you can help people build their skills, and help create a sense of community and shared responsibility at the same time!
5. Keep up two-way communications
People cope with pressure in different ways, and it is not always obvious to managers who in their team may be struggling. Creating a culture of frequent informal check-ins, backed by more regular and structured performance reviews, can help managers pick up on team members who are under stress and not coping well. Just putting time aside to talk to people, and giving them a chance to air their concerns and explain properly what is happening can make a huge difference.
HR needs to invest time in understanding the pressures their employees face, and to not presume that everyone has had the same experience of COVID-19. Using this understanding to develop strategies to help employees cope will create a healthier work environment and a more resilient, engaged and ultimately more productive workforce. The key is to learn which kind of initiatives work best in your business and to respond flexibly depending on the situation.