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Why return to work is putting more of a burden on managers
01:38 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

For several months at the beginning of the pandemic, American workers felt genuinely cared for by their bosses, according to a new survey released Friday by Gallup, an international polling organization.

By April 2020, only a month into the nationwide lockdown, 49% of workers felt warm and fuzzy about how they were being treated by their employers, nearly double the typical 25% who felt that way before the pandemic.

“Employees felt companies responded quickly at the beginning of the pandemic with genuine concern for them, their work and their lives,” said Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and well-being.

But those feelings didn’t last.

Employees’ perceptions of their employers as caring and concerned began to drop in early 2021, according to Gallup numbers. And it didn’t matter what type of job – the decline of well-being affected all industries.

Gallup surveys showed that by February 2022 employee cynicism had returned to pre-pandemic levels, with only 24% of the workplace saying their bosses had their best interest at heart.

Why would 1 in 4 American employees revert to such a poor opinion of their employers?

“There was a response from employers during 2020 that employees found encouraging,” Harter said. “Leaders did a good job of conveying a sense of hope in an unknown situation, they made future plans clear and kept people informed on how they were going to help people work from where they were at, all of which is an element of caring.

“And then I think employers just went back to their normal way of doing things.”

Communication and flexibility key

When the country first went into lockdown in March 2020, employers stepped up, Harter said. Many set up pandemic plans focused on keeping workers safe, and they quickly communicated those measures to employees.

Increasing communication was one key to a higher sense of well-being in workers, according to the survey.

When employees felt their bosses had communicated a clear plan of action in dealing with the emerging coronavirus threat, 73% of them strongly agreed that their employer cared about their overall well-being.

When employees said their supervisor kept them informed about what was going on in their company, 78% strongly agreed that bosses cared, Harter said.

Another huge plus – many employers allowed employees to work from home and were also more flexible about work schedules during the day, Harter said. That allowed people to juggle ever-changing childcare, schooling and home responsibilities during the pandemic, while also doing their jobs well.

“Flexibility was key,” Harter said.

“Ironically, that was the most desired perk pre-Covid and then ‘bam!’ People got to really experience it. What was a really slow-moving trend and pattern before the pandemic got turbocharged and became one of those events that just changes the workplace forever,” he said.

Why is this so important? The key reasons are reduced commute times and better work-life balance, he said.

Gallup survey results point to that permanent shift, Harter said: “We’ve asked people what their preferences are going forward. For those in remote-ready jobs, about 9 in 10 want at least some form of either flexible scheduling, like hybrid work or want to work fully remote.

“I think it is important for employers to address this issue,” he added. “Because when we see a gap between preference and how people expect their employer to react, we see lower levels of worker well-being, higher rates of burnout and lower levels of engagement.”

Supporting managers

The Gallup survey found the decline in well-being was especially high among managers. That makes sense, Harter said, due to the extra stresses on those key positions during the pandemic.

New strains of the coronavirus challenged return-to-work plans, making communication with staff more difficult. A record number of Americans retired, quit or changed jobs during 2021, either in response to Covid-19, more pay and benefits, or age discrimination.

But those were not the primary reasons workers quit, Harter said. Gallup research found about two-thirds of the reasons people left their job revolved around how engaged they felt at work and whether they felt they were treated with respect.

In addition to worker shortages and an ever-shifting landscape, not all managers had received the training they needed to adjust to the new normal of flexible work, Harter said.

“Every employee has a different work-life situation that only managers can understand. Good managers need their companies to coach them into how to give people feedback and have at least one meaningful conversation every week with each employee,” Harter said.

“That helps understand what each employee is working on and how they’re progressing, so they can make adjustments. Those conversations need to happen more,” he added.

Why employee well-being matters

Focusing on employee well-being does more than just keep employees from jumping ship, Harter said.

Gallup research has shown that teams who feel the company cares about their well-being, achieve higher profitability, productivity and higher customer engagement and have fewer safety incidents, he said.

In fact, employees who feel cared for are 71% lessb likely to report burnout, three times more likely to be engaged at work, and five times more likely to strongly advocate for their company as a good place to work. In addition, workers are 36% more likely to say they are thriving in their overall lives.

“This spring and summer will be a huge opportunity for organizations going forward to put things in motion that can lift workers’ well-being,” Harter said. “They can talk to employees about flexible work arrangements and what makes them more productive individually. What leads to better collaboration with your team, and how do we bring the best customer value in this flexible environment?

“Employees want to do these things,” Harter added. “So if leaders can use a framework of how work gets done and how it can fit into an individual’s life, employee well-being will likely rise.”