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  • 1st Apr 2020

Supporting employers and workers through the pandemic

Like millions of others around the world, we at BIT are grappling with the sudden changes to our working life that Covid-19 is imposing on us. We are trying out different approaches to respond to the circumstances to see what works. We are also running a series of quick surveys to determine the impact of those changes on our workers, which could easily be adapted to other organisations. The first survey shows that we’re already bumping into some issues, with many people reporting that their mental and physical health could be better and that they feel disconnected from coworkers. 

While Covid-19 is primarily a public health issue, it also presents unprecedented challenges for both employers and workers. At the beginning of the outbreak, we wrote about how employers can harness behavioural insights to support workers. In this post, we set out additional suggestions for employers to support their workers during the main part of the crisis, based on behavioural insights. 

To be clear, the measures below are intended to be complements to (not replacements for) systematic efforts to give workers the resources and support they need during the crisis, such as paid sick leave and additional financial assistance. Nor will these measures help those who cannot work from home, and those who are at risk of losing or have lost their jobs. 

Keep remote workers happy, healthy, and productive

With the arrival of Covid-19, millions of us are suddenly being forced to work from home. Remote working, with no immediate end in sight, is testing our wellbeing and productivity in new ways. Both workers and employers are experiencing difficulties.

In normal times, remote working has its pros and cons. It is associated with higher job satisfaction, but also with an inability to turn off, more intense work, and isolation. Adjusting to remote working is likely to be painful for both institutions and workers. Studies show that many factors, including workers’ communication skills and their familiarity with organisational norms and ways of working, affect how well people adapt.

To help people navigate the mess of adjustments they face, employers should, in addition to providing their workers with the right equipment:

1. Set clear guidelines on expectations for working from home: Guidelines could include that everyone agrees their daily working schedules with their manager and visibly show (in calendars and elsewhere) which hours they will be available, and use webcams during video conferences to enhance the quality of communication.

2. Help workers develop positive routines and ways to hold themselves accountable: Employers should help their workers establish commitment devices, or mechanisms that help them hold themselves to account for better daily routines. For instance, teams could repurpose commuting time to take an online yoga class, work out, or meditate together. Calendar reminders at the end of the day could nudge people to wrap up their work and plan the next day.

3. Encourage people to build social interaction into their calendars by default: For example, teams could hold regular virtual meet-ups during lunch or at tea time that anyone can join without an agenda. The aim would be to replace some of the small ways people easily connected with others at the office before the crisis.

Combat anxiety, stress, and burnout

Last year, an estimated 12.8 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. With Covid-19, we may see many more such challenges, as prolonged isolation can have significant negative psychological effects

Employers must find quick ways to assess the mental health of their workers and identify those who need help. At BIT, we have designed a short regular staff survey to measure how employees are handling the changes over time and respond to emerging health issues. The success of such measures will depend on the questions asked and on how many people respond.

People who work longer hours at home and those who are at the frontlines of the crisis, such as food service or healthcare workers, are particularly at risk for burnout. One of BIT’s recent projects bears important lessons for protecting such workers. We worked with 911 call takers, who deal with incredibly difficult situations every day, in 9 U.S. cities. Through a targeted set of messages aimed at fostering a sense of community and professional identity, we were able to reduce burnout by 8 percentage points and cut resignations in half. 

To counter mental health issues, employers could:

4. “Take the pulse” on the mental health of workers: Quick and repeated surveys can help employers understand whether workers are developing mental health issues and respond promptly to those issues.

5. Send workers at risk of burnout supportive messages to strengthen their sense of community and belonging: These messages could remind workers of their job’s meaning, prompt them to support each other (e.g. “take a minute today to ask a colleague how they’re feeling”), and encourage them to ask for support. BIT is already running a text message service to improve the wellbeing of teachers during Covid-19.

6. Guide employees towards evidence-based mental health programs: For instance, employers could offer subscriptions to the mindfulness application Headspace and give workers in need access to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Many organisations already have benefits that can be used for counselling and similar mental health supports, which they should remind their workers of.

Communicate clearly and regularly

Not knowing when this crisis will end, what will happen to our jobs, and whether we will be able to keep our families safe is causing a lot of stress and anxiety for everyone.

Research shows that employees see their employers as credible sources of information on the virus and the associated crisis. This means that employers can play a crucial role disseminating information and providing whatever assurances they can.

To help reduce employees’ anxiety about the uncertainty associated with the crisis, employers could: 

7. Send regular updates to staff from a member of the senior management team: People pay more attention to certain messengers than others. In this crisis, hearing from your boss is likely particularly important. Senior management should send updates on how the organisation is adapting to the new operating environment and what measures are being taken to support workers, in addition to occasional updates on official health guidance.

8. Create clear rules of thumb about what staff should do if they start suffering Covid-19 symptoms: Developing symptoms, or caring for those who do, is going to be a uniquely stressful situation for many. Employers should highlight what supports and assurance they can provide, and what they can do for you and what you should do if you develop symptoms. These messages should be supportive, clear, and concise, as making desired behaviours as easy as possible makes it more likely that people will pursue them.

These are challenging times for everyone, but there are also many ways to make them less challenging. BIT is actively expanding upon what we know works and coming up with new ways to address the issues we face as an employer and as workers, and are keen to help other organisations do the same. We are happy to partner with employers that are interested in diagnosing and addressing the behavioural barriers they and their workers face during this crisis.