4 ways to improve employee wellbeing post-coronavirus

With lockdown restrictions likely to ease as new coronavirus cases fall, it looks like things could pick up fairly soon. But what exactly does this mean for employees' wellbeing?

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May 17, 2020
Team Engagement

Research into psychological immunity and resilience during times of stress – such as the period we're going through with the coronavirus pandemic – has shown that people will generally recover after experiencing a significant drop in wellbeing, but they will recover at different speeds, according to Professor Frederik Anseel, Associate Dean of Research at UNSW Business School.

“We have some sort of adaptive mode, that we're able to recover from whatever happens to us,” explains Professor Anseel, whose research focuses on the psychological micro-foundations of organisational learning, innovation and entrepreneurship, and how leadership can support these processes.

“Some people are better at bouncing back than others … we all have a bit of a problem if there's a crisis – we're destabilised and we're wondering what's happening – but some people are able to more quickly recover from that in terms of performance – but also wellbeing."

So how can business leaders ensure they’re doing all they can to support employees’ psychological resilience and wellbeing, especially as organisations potentially transition towards the post-coronavirus recovery? Professor Anseel suggests business leaders adopt these four approaches to help navigate the crisis and ensure employees are best prepared for whatever comes next. 

1. Overcoming uncertainty

First, it is important to understand some of the common gaps, challenges and issues that organisations have and will continue to face in this process for some time.

One of the major problems throughout the current crisis has been navigating an unprecedented level of uncertainty. “Normally, when a company is in a crisis, we have a period of uncertainty and typically managers will be able to explain: ‘Look, this is where we are, this is what is likely going to happen and this is where we will end up’,” says Professor Anseel.

“But this is something that we've never seen before. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-100-year crisis and event, and so uncertainty is everywhere.”

So one of the key challenges that organisations and business leaders face is to find ways of offering some guidance to employees through this period of uncertainty. 

2. Be open about what is happening

The coronavirus pandemic has, in many ways, presented business leaders with the ultimate test: can they communicate effectively and reassure employees, despite so much uncertainty?

Managers should be open about the current situation, what is happening to the business, how it is being impacted and be transparent about the information that is being used to make important strategic decisions. But with the situation changing rapidly – often from week-to-week – some managers may find it difficult to communicate plans they may need to change because they fear the very act of doing so will undermine their leadership.

“They're afraid that people will say: ‘Do you really know what you're talking about if you need to revise your plans every week?’,” says Professor Anseel.

Instead, managers should say something along the lines of: "We have as much information as you have, we do not know exactly what will be happening, but here is our timeline of key decisions and deadlines and here is the kind of information that is being used to inform those decisions."

This means that although employees won't have certainty about the outcome, they will have some certainty about when to expect something from their employer, explains Professor Anseel. This also means that employees can have some trust that their managers will use all the information that is available and that they will listen to them when making crucial decisions.

"That creates a bit of more certainty and gives people a sense of control about the situation and how things are going," adds Professor Anseel.

3. Adopt a learning mindset

Creating a work environment that enables people to excel at what they do requires more than just adaptive technology, it also requires responsive leadership and management.

So the next important thing for business leaders to do is adopt a learning mindset – and in doing so, revise plans confidently without fear that this will undermine their leadership. One of the key elements of resilience is the ability to change quickly, and Professor Anseel said this requires a learning mindset.

“What we should be able to do is explain to people: ‘This is new for all of us, we've never been here before ... we'll have to adapt’,”  he says. Indeed, the mantra of "this is how we normally do things" simply won’t work in the post-coronavirus world.

But if managers remain open about stepping out of their normal habits and patterns, they can be much more adaptive and innovative, which encourages employees to do the same.

"Everyone feels a bit threatened at the moment, but if you can make it clear to people that we're all in this together, you won't be judged because we need to learn from week-to-week," says Professor Anseel. "I think that creates an openness ... the entire organisation is then able to quickly learn from it."

4. Accept the situation

Finally, it is important to accept the situation at an individual level and to let go of the desire to try and control things.

“A lot of people are in fight mode," says Professor Anseel, who observes that some leaders and employees feel they need to be in control. “Nobody knows what is going to happen and what we're doing, but what I do know is that normal ways of working will probably not apply here, so we need to find a new way of working.”

In uncertain situations where there's a lot of change, creating structure and routine has been shown to promote effective learning and working. Professor Anseel suggests finding a new daily rhythm and routine, where you can look forward to certain things every day.

"You'll see that after a couple of days or a couple of weeks, you will have a new routine and a bit of structure in your life," he says. “Once you have that routine and structure, that gives you [once again] a bit of control."

For more information on how leaders can improve employee wellbeing and build resilience in the workplace listen to the AGSM @ UNSW Business School webinar on Leading through times of crisis: From Coping To Thriving or contact UNSW Business School’s Professor Frederik Anseel directly.

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May 17, 2020
Team Engagement