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The Employee Engagement Roller Coaster – COVID’S Cost to Manager Well-Being

Gallup’s most recent findings on U.S employee engagement in 2020 came out. It turns out 2020 was a roller coaster, with the percentage of employees reporting active engagement fluctuating wildly, but ultimately for the better as folks became accustomed to a “new normal”. There were some findings that sparked my curiosity and left me wanting more information and insight into the “why.” Specifically, a discrepancy between employee engagement and manager engagement.

I think it’s important to first clarify Gallup’s definition of engagement. “Engaged employees are those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

It’s no surprise that in early March of 2020, reported employee well-being plummeted to decade plus low. Parents with young children really suffered, facing unprecedented challenges of having to juggle full-time work with limited to no childcare options, while overseeing 100% virtual learning, managing their own physiological reality of Zoom fatigue and the inability to separate work and home life etc.

Surprisingly, we saw an all-time engagement high reported in May, followed by a sudden short-lived record drop in June following George Floyd’s killing, then a dramatic rebound in July to a record high of 40%. From July through September levels normalized to right around 36%. By January 2021, engagement was up 3% from the year before.

It’s counter-intuitive to think overall employee engagement would increase during COVID given the overwhelming added stresses. However, the answer to increased engagement, or at least one contributing factor, seems to lie with the influence of an employee’s direct supervisor or manager, and specifically the amount of direct feedback received.

Since the start of Covid, employees reported a 26% increase in the amount of feedback they were getting versus what they were in 2019. 45% of respondents reported receiving feedback daily to several times per week.Meaningful feedback increased 9%. This is significant because according to another Gallup finding, meaningful feedback is an essential factor in engagement, especially in a virtual workplace. Gallup’s study of managers found that, “The manager accounts for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement.” If employees are happier with their managers, the stats show they’re level of engagement is higher. It’s very clear that managers stepped up in 2020, providing the support their teams needed to succeed in uncharted conditions.

Okay, so we have employees reporting to be more engaged, which seems to be highly correlated with more satisfaction with leadership. We might naturally draw the conclusion that managers are also more engaged if they have a stronger presence and are providing more regular feedback and communication to their teams. But something is array because manager engagement was down in 2020 to a concerning 33%. The discrepancy between higher employee engagement and decreased manager engagement is curious. One would think they would go hand in hand. Not so.

There’s no question leadership became significantly more challenging during the Pandemic: recognizing and prioritizing the team’s mental health and morale, adjusting to the constantly moving targets brought on by market shifts, changing client and customer needs, supply chain disruptions etc., while fielding myriad questions about workplace concerns there were no clear answers for.

At the onset of the crisis, leaders did a great job communicating company adjustments and supporting employees and keeping them engaged through the transition, however it apparently came at a cost to their own well-being.

When well-being suffers so does engagement, which ultimately leads to burnout. Well-being was especially challenged by the blurred line between work and home life. The constant overlap. Previously we could do a better job compartmentalizing work and home, but in a 100% remote workplace, it’s nearly impossible to separate the two.

While there may be a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine roll-out underway, we’re still not back in the office and it’s not yet “busines as usual.” Leaders are continuing to have to juggle and strike a balance between being understanding, supportive and inspirational with pushing performance, innovation, and growth to drive revenue. The toll it’s taking on leadership is palpable.

Bottom line, organizations need to consider how to support frontline managers as they give more to their teams at the expense of themselves, whether that’s during challenging times like a global Pandemic or moving forward once we’re out of the proverbial (virus) woods during normal phases of rapid growth and change. It must start from the top and trickle down.

Companies need to create a psychologically safe environment for frontline managers to be role models of work/life balance, positive mental health and well-being so that their teams feel “allowed” to take care of themselves as well.

Managers can walk the talk by:

· Taking PTO

· Scheduling “stress breaks” throughout the day

· Taking advantage of available EAP mental health services

· Being vulnerable and communicating openly and honestly about their own challenges and struggles

· Acknowledging when feelings of isolation set in and fostering connection with others. Don’t be an island!

There has never been a time when it has mattered more for managers to model what self-care, vulnerability, and authenticity look like in the workplace. They may not be speaking up and asking for it, but they need the organization’s permission to prioritize their own well-being and give just as much to themselves as they do for their teams.

What is your company doing to support those who are most at risk?

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