November 10, 2020

Building and prioritizing a caring-centered culture

Caring-centered cultures and holistic employee experiences go hand in hand. The mental health impact of workforce disruptions can be significant, but you can leverage human capital management technology to ensure the right mental health support keeps employees happy and healthy.

Social distancing and the rise of remote work has increased employee isolation, anxiety, and stress exponentially. In the U.S., an earlier Gallup poll found that 60% of people are feeling stress or worry because of COVID-19. This number, which typically doesn’t fluctuate much, is up 14% since last summer. It’s also much higher than the anxiety levels reported during the 2008 recession.

These aren’t minor symptoms either. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that during the COVID-19 outbreak in China, more than 50% of people rated the psychological impact as moderate-to-severe, and one-third said they were experiencing moderate-to-severe anxiety.

This isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. It has been widely reported that loneliness is a growing health epidemic among workers of all ages and in all roles. And, employees that have long been working remotely or completely virtually aren’t strangers to managing burnout and feeling disconnected. It’s therefore critical to strengthen social connections not only in times of crisis, but as a long-term strategy to build culture.

Today, people are taking more action to improve their well-being. According to a Google trends report, searches for “self-care” were at an all-time high. A separate Google Trends analysis also revealed an uptick in searches related to anxiety and treatments for panic attacks since the World Health Organization issued a pandemic declaration in March.

We as employers need to do our part. In the ideal caring-centered culture of the near future, companies will put people before profits, and have wellness resources in place to help employees as much personally as professionally. Policies will reflect the values that health and safety come first, and that caring is everyone’s responsibility.

This type of organization doesn’t create itself, of course, and a failure to observe and respond to today’s employee needs risks a company’s long-term livelihood. According to a Forbes-reported Workload Impact Survey conducted by Survey Monkey, 14% of women and 11% of men considered quitting their jobs during the pandemic because of mounting pressures associated with work and family life.

Where might these talented employees go? As illustrated by a new McKinsey survey, many employers are getting this right. Nearly 40% of respondents said they were concerned about their employees’ mental health, and of those who were concerned, seven out of 10 are making additional investments in behavioural health.

Putting employee well-being front and center requires forethought, sensitivity, and intelligence coupled with modern technology. This may sound good, but if you still aren’t sure what a caring-centered culture looks like and have struggled to quantify the success of wellness programs in the past, you aren’t alone.

Given that people are a company’s biggest investment and most important asset, a great employee experience depends on a culture steeped in empathy and psychological safety. More than ever, employers need to expand their role in employee well-being and rethink how they define employee experience to take personal situations into account, construct a more flexible work infrastructure, and provide a variety of wellness solutions.

Having empathetic conversations and listening to feedback

Caring-centered cultures promote this value, encouraging risk taking, creativity and innovation, and speaking up in difficult circumstances. Leaders can foster psychological safety in their workforces through empathy and careful listening.

Although empathy has been a buzzword recently, it’s not a skill all leaders come by naturally. Even in between disruptions, as human capital professionals we must create training programs that educate our leaders in the fundamentals, including:

  • Creating two-way feedback cycles — beneficial not only for building a caring-centered culture, but also for understanding what employees really want and need.
  • Looking out for signs of isolation, anxiety, and depression; checking on team members frequently (and potentially having them check in with how they’re feeling via your HCM).
  • Engaging the team in virtual bonding activities and lighthearted moments like happy hours and funny videos.
  • Practicing tolerance, flexibility, appreciation, and having reasonable expectations about productivity levels and deadlines.

Engagement or pulse surveys may prove helpful as listening techniques to how successful your organization is at leader empathy. However, you might glean the greatest insights from select, one-on-one qualitative interviews with a variety of employees across levels, functions, and geographies.

Flexibly managing schedules and compensation

If team managers had to keep track of a lot of moving parts before, today’s leader burden is far more substantial. With front line and traditional office employees going in a thousand different directions, completing work in disparate locations and in an asynchronous manner, even a caring-centered leader can find themselves overwhelmed.

The degree of ease – or hardship – associated with doing work and getting paid – can make a big difference in employees’ mental health. Fortunately, HCM systems can help managers provide employees with the agile and customized support they need. These solutions cut the administrative time involved with planning and managing employee schedules. Employees can choose when and where they work, swap shifts on the go using voice or chat commands, and clock-in on their mobile devices during social distancing or otherwise necessary times.

Many HCM systems also have an absence management capability, allowing organizations to define relevant absences (paid time off, vacation, sick leave, etc.), manage requests and approvals, and maintain legal and union compliance.

Furthermore, during a financially turbulent period, flexible payroll features encourage leaders to adjust pay schedules, and employees to access funds on-demand.

Caring-centered cultures make the most of advanced technology with human reinforcement. Leaders can supplement HCM system capabilities by communicating to employees that it’s desirable (versus frowned upon) to take advantage of flexible offerings and assure them that you are tracking absences at a macro rather than micro level.

Leveraging smart benefit systems

More than ever, employees want to feel confident in their health insurance benefits, it can be challenging to maximize spend for both employers and employees. Fortunately, with every year, artificial intelligence is advancing in a way that helps HR managers select the best plans for their organization and informs employees about available benefits.

Predictive analytics uses algorithms and machine learning to examine current and historical facts and make educated forecasts about future events. In the area of benefits administration, predictive analytics can help HR managers make sense of spending data collected and adjust plans in anticipation of further disruptions.

Meanwhile, once you select your options, your HCM software can use aggregated internal data to master how your employees select and use benefit programs. During a period when behaviour patterns may be changing in real time, smart systems can react quickly, and gather information from linked accounts to make fresh recommendations.

They can also guide employees in calling out potential savings, maximizing flexible spending accounts and tax breaks, categorizing relevant out of pocket expenses, researching providers, and adhering to deadlines.

To that end, it’s important to point out that smart benefit systems, like other AI-driven technologies, do not “take over the process” and invite people to fully relinquish control. Your HR managers and employees are still in the driver’s seat and must be responsible for responding to escalations and vetting any benefit-related suggestions.

Additionally, caring-centered cultures recognize that in times of crisis, benefits issues may be especially sensitive and require an extra human touch. When introducing these systems, you’ll need to educate your human partners on the need for oversight, careful review, and appropriate intervention.

Overall, smart benefit systems free up HR managers to spend less time transacting basic benefit administration so they can focus on a higher-level, people-first talent strategy, and to deploy technology that can learn from and adapt to evolving employee needs. As with other features, smart benefits systems are not “set and forget.” The caring-centered organization revisits offerings and procedures often based on utilization and satisfaction metrics.

Looking ahead: The new reality of employee well-being

Today’s organizations must approach employee well-being in a way that was never necessary before. The average person in 2020 faces unprecedented stressors, and a caring-centered culture treats that person more like a family member or close friend with the full spectrum of emotional needs than a one-dimensional worker who serves the company silently.

This is not only the right thing to do, but the strategy that will ensure your workforce stands by you when the next crisis hits. As we transition out of COVID-19, your two greatest endowments are your people and the technology that brings out the best in them.

Alexandra Levit

Alexandra Levit is an author, consultant, speaker, and workplace expert. She has written several career advice books, and was formerly a nationally syndicated career columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Alexandra is currently a partner at organizational development firm PeopleResults.

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