Earlier this week I connected with a client to check in about how some of the workplace mental health initiatives we’d implemented together in her workplace were going. Of course for most organizations the pandemic brought psychological wellness into the spotlight, exposing the good (what was working), the bad (what wasn’t helping) and the ugly (what was serving the organization so poorly that it not only wasn’t beneficial but was actually making things worse). *Sidebar: “What sort of mental health initiative could be doing more harm than good?” you ask? That’s a story for another day – tune in for next week’s blog!
My client, an HR professional at a mid-sized company in a rural area of western Canada, told me her workplace was buzzing with a strange combination of excitement about the easing of restrictions and an ever-present exhaustion. “Our company has always been great at making our team members feel valued,” she said, “but these are such extraordinary times. Disability claims, especially for stress-related issues, have been much higher than the norm during the pandemic and although it looks like the end is now in sight I’m worried about staff burnout. How can we expect people to just bounce back and get back to business as usual?” It’s a topic that’s been taking up a good deal of real estate in my own brain for months now and unfortunately there’s no simple answer. To make things even more complicated, many of her team members are now transitioning back to the physical work environment after working at home for an extended period of time, so she was expecting some bumps in the road in that regard as well. I asked her to expand on her comment that the organization had historically done a good job of making employees feel appreciated. Our conversation turned to how multifaceted a robust, strategic employee recognition program is.
Canadian workers and their families have been on a psychological rollercoaster for the past year and a half. They’ve navigated uncharted waters in their workplaces and after seemingly unending changes we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. In the aftershock of COVID-19 how can you make sure your employees feel valued and supported? Here are a few concepts to consider:
1. Focus on practicality
What do each of your team members need right now, and how can the organization help? Practical support will go a lot further than just reiterating what I call “sweet nothings” – vague statements that don’t carry any concrete action, like “Don’t forget, Organization X is here for you and cares for you”. Instead, carve out time to drive home the various services available to them through your Employee & Family Assistance Program. Be specific and don’t forget to communicate that an employee’s spouse and any dependent children also have access to the program. If you see signs that an employee might be having a hard time, don’t shy away from the conversation. Ask what you can do to help, follow through and touch base afterward to follow up.
2. Acknowledge that needs are varied
The old adage about treating people the way you would want to be treated doesn’t apply here. To make employees feel truly valued we must tune in with what makes them tick. Financial remuneration in the form of a raise or bonus has long been regarded as a universally appreciated way of demonstrating gratitude to an employee. It may surprise you to learn that research shows this is changing as Millennials and Gen Z’ers enter the workforce and move up the ranks. Millennials are the first generation of workers who will take less money in favour of a job where they feel valued, connected to an organization’s mission and can strike what they see as a healthy work-life balance. Boomers tend to appreciate formal or ceremonious expressions of gratitude (think presenting a watch recognizing 25 years with the company) and for Gen X’ers cash is king. Of course these are generalizations but the point remains that effective employee recognition is much more complex than a one-size-fits-all approach.
3. Provide professional development opportunities
Many employees and leaders I’ve chatted with over the course of the pandemic have described feeling like they’re just keeping their heads above water. You might assume that it’s a less than ideal time to offer training opportunities, thinking that a gentle return to the norm will be more helpful than an expectation for people to learn something new when there’s already been a lot of “new” in many shapes and sizes during the pandemic. However, it’s worth acknowledging that all of those changes resulted in a feeling of chaos and lack of control for many of us… and an opportunity to learn a new skillset or brush up on skills they didn’t have the chance to utilize often during the pandemic could well be integral in helping an employee regain their confidence, sense of purpose and make them feel like they’re back in the drivers’ seat in their role. (Mental Health First Aid training is a great example!)
When rolled out with strategy and a willingness to think outside the box, employee recognition initiatives serve a dual role: the obvious benefit is that employees feel valued and are happier at work (and probably at home, too) and in return the organization benefits through the resulting improved engagement, retention and corporate reputation. Truly a win-win. Now more than ever, it’s vital to take care of your organization’s most valuable asset: its people.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.