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Kathleen Vangronsvelt & Ans De Vos

How to reweave organizations’ social fabric?

Human Resources COVID-19

Driven by curiosity, professors Ans De Vos and Kathleen Vangronsvelt (together with VBO / FEB & HRPro.be) organized a survey of executives and HR professionals in April 2020 about the impact of COVID-19 on people in their organizations. They continued to do so throughout the crisis. One year later, next to employers, they also started surveying employees. How did they experience the crisis, and what impact did it have on their perception of work?

Mental well-being in organizations: five minutes to midnight

The crisis clearly was not beneficial to employees' mental well-being. Our research shows that more than 1 in 2 employees experienced a negative impact on their mental health. Below, we will explore possible causes and suggest some tools for both employees and employers to support mental well-Ans De Vos_Kathleen Van GronsveltProf.  dr. Kathleen Vangronsvelt en Prof. dr. Ans De Vos, Antwerp Management School

Mental health in organizations under pressure?

The results of our study indicate that employees are insufficiently drawing the line when it comes to their mental health. While 1 in 4 employees report not feeling well mentally, only a fraction are actually drawing the line. Only 7% said they were unable to work because of too much pressure, while 83% said that “stress at work is just part of the game”.
Employers are well aware of the seriousness of the problem. 80% say they lie awake at night worrying about their employees’ mental health. An increasing number of respondents (from 1 in 3 at the start of the crisis to 1 in 2 in January 2021) fear that this situation will lead to increased employee absenteeism.

Building & keeping our tribe is getting harder

We know that connectedness plays an important role in mental well-being. Over the past year, this sense of belonging to coworkers and the organization has come under pressure. The basic need to be part of a close-knit ‘tribe’ (a larger entity with its own identity) has been hard to meet. The lack of connection to the organization weighs even more heavily on mental well-being than the lack of connection to coworkers.

At the start of 2021, 2 in 3 employers said that creating connectedness was not going well, a doubling compared to April 2020. At the start of the crisis, there were still plenty of e-peros and the like. Today, the social void has clearly become a lot more fundamental and is gnawing away at employees’ mental well-being.

Is my work even being seen?

But there is more. Working from home also makes employee performance a lot less visible to the manager. Employees thus fear that their efforts will go unnoticed and will therefore be less appreciated. 27% of employees indicate that they feel less confident about their performance being assessed correctly.

What can employees and employers do about this?

It is important to talk about these issues within the organization. From the above, it may have become clear that an organization is about more than keeping the business running. It is a social fabric that is fundamental to employees’ mental health. So free up the schedule to connect with coworkers, focusing on what is still possible.

A walking meeting, for instance, or an entertaining blind date with some coworkers where you only get the meeting point coordinates. Feedback on employee performance has become even more important. Employees must know that their work is seen, and that their work is important to achieve the organization's objectives. This not only concerns managers, but employees themselves as well: Feel free to schedule a meeting with your manager and discuss the progress of your work, the priorities and the difficulties you are experiencing. This will also make it easier to signal that you have reached your limits.

Careers on the move?

It is striking to see how the crisis has caused more than 1 in 2 employees to reflect more on their careers. 1 in 3 employers in our survey claimed that the pandemic will substantially change employees’ careers. Yet, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, most employees do not believe that the crisis will have a negative impact on their careers, and 80% of employers are confident that their employees have the right competences to continue working after the crisis. Below you can find some lessons learned to be taken into account within career policies.

Violation of the psychological contract

In general, workers understand that the coronavirus crisis has put their employer in a difficult situation, impacting their jobs as well. Still, many employees who were temporarily unemployed (part-time or full-time) experience this as a violation of their psychological contract. Career change intention is also higher in this group. Hence, temporary contract interruptions may have fundamental consequences in the long term. As an employer, it is important to take extra care of this group of employees.

Resilience and future-fitness

Despite the mental pressure and lack of connectedness, employees have shown great resilience during the crisis. Not only in the massive switch to working from home, but also in taking on other tasks or jobs elsewhere within the organization, requiring them to use other skills.

2 in 3 employees say they have developed new skills as a result of the crisis. These employees are more optimistic about future job opportunities, both within and outside their own organization. Digital skills are at the top of the list of new skills. Remarkably, these skills are mainly learned on the job, rather than through formal training.

The right time for a career interview

Being flexible in handling change is a critical 21st century skill. Thus, as an employer, it is important to sufficiently consider employee performance in this area. What learning curve have they gone through? What does this mean for their employability? Put this topic at the heart of career interviews. After all, personal development not only happens through formal training, which is something we should highlight more, since what you pay attention to grows.

As an employee, it is good to reflect on the times that you could not rely on workplace routines in the past year, and what you have learned from that. What does this tell you about what you like to do? What growth opportunities are there? Discuss this with your manager and see how you can put these new skills to use in the future.
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