Gallup reports improving engagement is not enough. Five tips for leading a stressed-out, restless workforce.

Gallup released its venerable State of the Global Workplace Report for 2021 this month. Surprisingly, workplace engagement rose to 36 percent in 2020, the year of the pandemic, a one percent increase for both the US and Canada. But, stress for these same employees rose from nearly 50 percent in 2019 to 57 percent in 2020, revealing a stressed-out, restless workforce. Gallup is now calling for a New Measure of Organizational Success: Employee Engagement Plus Thriving Wellbeing. Managing employee engagement is not enough, according to Gallup. Companies also need to manage employee wellbeing.

Gallup’s Global Workplace Report is one of many surveys that are uncovering high levels of stress — and anger -in the workplace and the need to lead employees in a new way. Executives need to encourage their managers to be more empathetic, provide employees options for hybrid working, and create transparent and learning work cultures.

Gallup’s findings on employee stress levels are low compared to the research of Limeade. Limeade released its global study of 4,553 employees on April 27 and found that all the employees surveyed have some anxiety about returning to work, with 77 percent citing being exposed to COVID19 as their top concern, followed by 71 percent who were concerned about less flexibility, and 58 percent concerned with their commute.

The Limeade survey reveals that employees are extremely worried about returning to the workplace as their needs for flexibility, communication, and care have increased. Of those surveyed by Limeade, 82% say health and safety for themselves and their family is the top source of stress when looking at the year ahead.

Another recently released survey also found high levels of stress about returning to the office: 60 percent of employees do not want to return to the office. (These employees are going so far as saying they will quit their jobs before returning to the office.)

Gallup’s latest research links engagement, what happens at work, with wellbeing, which includes work and all other life experiences. These experiences go beyond issues in the workplace or caused by COVID19 to include feelings of worry, stress, anger, and sadness in their lives.

Gallup’s chart below shows increasing levels of worry, stress, anger, and sadness growing across the globe since 2009, except for 2014, and jumping last year during the pandemic.

Gallup has identified five elements that make up overall wellbeing. They are mental health, emotional strain, social isolation, financial shocks, and caregiving responsibilities. When people are thriving in all five areas, they have better health outcomes than when thriving in just physical wellbeing. They all influence work performance over the long term. Over time, the negative side of these experiences can lead to burnout. Employees who are engaged at work but not thriving with their wellbeing typically feel high levels of stress, worry, anger, and sadness, despite their positive experiences at work. These emotions are all bellwethers of burnout. But, when employees are engaged and thriving, the risk of burnout declines sharply.

Gallup has found that managers play a critical role in employee engagement and wellbeing. Managers account for 70 percent of the variance in team engagement. For managers to positively influence employee engagement, they must continue to build trust and do more coaching so they can have honest and meaningful conversations about development with their team members. When employees do not trust their managers, Gallup observes, no wellbeing program can be effective. Gallup does recommend that employers foster employee wellbeing by developing their strengths, fostering careers, creating family-friend policies and encouraging healthy eating and exercise.

Gallup’s findings on the role managers and companies have with improving engagement and employees ability to thrive matches closely with the research published last October by Marcus Buckingham.

Buckingham and his team at the ADP Research Institute, surveyed more than 26,000 employees in 25 companies to develop a statistically reliable, global measure of resiliency, equally represented by men and women.

Buckingham says employees who have experienced change are more resilient than those who have not. Change is not a problem. Sugar-coating reality or making false promises is a problem. His advice to executives is this: do not rush to make things normal. People will not feel better with those words. What makes people feel better is acknowledging the reality they are experiencing and informing them on what to do. This understanding takes a normal human fear and turns it into action and confidence. His research shows that the higher people are in the organization, the more they are resilient.

Below are Marcus Buckingham’s recommendations for improving resiliency at work:

First for individuals. Individuals need to know what they can control and cannot control and to focus on what they can control. They should also try to find strength in work. If they can, they will be more resilient.

Second for team leaders. Team leaders need to check in frequently with each employee every week to see how they are doing. Buckingham recommends they ask two questions: What are you working on this week? How can I help you? Team leaders also have the ability to tell employees what they need to know for any crisis in the near term. The more they do this, the more resilient their workers will be.

Third, for senior leaders. The need to stay one step ahead of events. Buckingham means events in the near future, such as around the corner, not next year. Such concerns may include work employees need to do, information relating to customers they will continue to serve, and details about the small steps they can take to continue the business. He emphases that senior leaders should not sugar coat bad news. Speak to reality, what they know. Senior leaders need to follow through on what they say they will do and build trust with employees.

Click this link to learn more about Marcus Buckingham’s research on resiliency.

Before leaving Gallup’s survey to making recommendations, I want to comment on what I have found most interesting about Gallup’s 2021 report: the high level of employee engagement for Gallup’s best practice employers, at an astonishing 73 percent.  Gallup’s chart below shows employee engagement trends for the globe, US and for best-practice organizations.

Gallup reports that its clients who have increased their percentage of engaged employees to 70 percent or higher have seen their workplaces completely transform, with corresponding improvements in growth and profits. In its 2021 report, Gallup reports that engagement measures have proven through 10 meta-analyses that employee engagement correlates strongly with positive performance outcomes, such as profitability, productivity, sales, safety, and retention. Engaged employees act differently at work. They go above and beyond to surpass expectations, which gives their organizations a competitive edge. Gallup has found that the importance of employee engagement to business outcomes increases during times of crisis. But in these times, managing engagement is not enough. companies also need to manage employee wellbeing.

There should be no doubt that the workforce has endured much during 2020 and the first half of 2021. Their safety and the safety of their families are paramount. Every executive team needs to consider these concerns. Companies that do not oblige safety concerns will experience significant increases in employee turnover, which is already twice what it was a year ago.

Here are my five tips for leading a restless workforce.

  1. Thoughtfully implement a hybrid work model for your office workers that do most of their work through the computer and do not need to work in manufacturing, R&D Labs or with customers at work. Hybrid work models are the number one solution to help reduce stress in the workforce because they enable employees to manage their work/life integration better while continuing outstanding performance. Here is a thought guide book for you. If you are concerned about returning employees on innovation teams to the office, follow these guidelines.
  2. Executives should follow Marcus Buckingham’s recommendations to stay one-step ahead of events, such as those that are right around the corner. Do not sugar coat bad news. Speak to reality, what the employees already know. Senior leaders need to follow through on what they say they will do and build trust with employees.
  3. Study after study (including the ones above) has found that managers who build trust with their employees, are empathetic, set clear expectations and team norms, and give honest feedback have higher-performing and more innovative teams. Trust is essential. Train your current and future managers to lead in this fashion.
  4. Develop your workforce. We are in a long-term labor shortage, and finding and hiring great talent will only become more difficult. It is less expensive to keep and upskill your current workforce. The companies that invest in the skill and career development of their current workers will avoid the high cost of turnover.
  5. Follow Gallup’s advice and create family-friendly policies such as paid leaves of absence and baby bonding leaves of absence for both genders.

Although employee engagement is at an all time high in the US, employees will burnout and quit if the stressors in their lives are not relieved. There is no returning to normal for 2021 or the decade. Employers who transition to highly resilient work cultures, have empowering leaders, and hybrid work models will be the winners.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at www.VictorHRConsultant.com. 

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