How can you ensure your employees stay well, especially now? Talk to them. Often. How good communication is key to a healthy, productive workforce... and your bottom line
Burnout: The Modern Workplace Epidemic
‘The cost to the average company is between 80,000 and 120,000 euros a year if someone burns out. That is per employee,’ says Liselotte Betist, a Burnout and Stress Specialist based in Amstelveen, The Netherlands. ‘If a group of your employees are sick, tired, or not thriving, you are putting money to waste.’
In order to avoid burnout, people need to feel aligned with their own core values and intrinsic motivations. If someone is in the wrong position, or the company and its culture don’t align with a person’s values, they will become unproductive, unwell and could potentially burnout. Betist says: ‘If you aren’t vital and you aren’t engaged, you aren’t really there... and you are definitely not productive.’
Betist isn’t suggesting that everyone has to change job positions or suddenly jump ship and join the Peace Corp. She explains that each person needs to find something in their roles that is rewarding. Each person needs something that brings them energy and satisfaction, motivating them for a long time so they can continue working without getting overloaded.
That is purpose and wellness.
How can you, as a leader, ensure that burnout doesn’t spread through your team? Start with communication.
Every time you have an engaging event, a useful staff meeting or meaningful conversation with your team it’s sustaining and revitalizing. It can be like you offered water in the desert. Something that can revive and refresh them, energizing them for the road ahead. This is especially true in times of upheaval and change, like now.
While giving someone water in the desert may not solve every problem, it can sustain your team for the long trek ahead.
Beginning a Dialogue
So what does communication have to do with keeping your employees healthy?
Employees need to be recognized as the complex human beings they are and communication can do that. To be effective, it can’t just be top-down. It has to flow in both directions, reciprocally. When communication works well, it makes your teams and your business thrive.
Water in the Desert
What makes a person feel well, particularly in hard times? People feel better when they feel seen, heard and understood. They feel better knowing that they are not alone, that someone is listening and feeling what they feel. They feel better knowing they are not alone, that we are in this together.
Great communication can achieve a sense of wellbeing in turbulent times by helping employees feel grounded and safe. Poor communication leads to uncertainty, which is often fueled by worry, speculation and gossip that can poison a company’s morale.
When we are unhappy or uncertain, our emotions take us on a rollercoaster that affects how we think, feel and work. Companies that operate under a feeling of fear and secrecy don’t have effective workforces.
Fear of making mistakes or speaking out at work contributes to a fearful workplace. The tension, stress and anxiety fear causes leads to energy spent worrying about the future instead of working. While many smart professionals learn how to compartmentalize and push through these energy leaks, over the long term this eats away at their enthusiasm, concentration and commitment, not to mention their wellbeing.
Your job, and that of your fellow leaders, is to make employees feel like trusted allies. You don’t need a solution for every problem. You need honesty and vulnerability.
A Well-Nurtured Relationship
So how do you do it?
I promise, it’s not with another newsletter, although they do have their place. You do so with human, relevant and meaningful communication targeted to the right people at the right time. You should nurture your employees – through communications – the way you nurture an important personal relationship.
Be Relevant in Tone & Content
The biggest mistake most leaders make with their formal communication is avoiding difficult topics. By being relevant with what matters to your employees, you are acknowledging that you take them seriously, you share their concerns and are focusing on what matters – even if progress is slow.
Your communications should reflect the culture you are trying to create. The topics you choose to speak or write about – and noticeably those you don’t – set the tone and the mood for your team. What you say has weight. Don’t be afraid to share what really matters.
Be Genuine but Don’t Sugarcoat Reality
Be open and genuine. Be vulnerable. Be transparent. Not everyone needs or wants every detail, but they should feel informed and respected.
Let people know what you expect of them, ask for their feeling on things: How is your team doing? What are they most concerned about? How is morale?
Empower Your Experts and Leaders
Lean on your comms team. This is exactly what they are there for. Give them direction so they aren’t left guessing what’s in your head.
Empowered comms teams are effective ones. Give them a seat at the table. Ask for their advice. Organizations where the comms managers are part of the management structure are the most effective.
Without good stakeholder management and buy-in from the key players, even the best formulated communications will fall flat. It may feel like double the effort at times, but creating united leadership and transparency is key to effective communication.
It’s crucial to make sure your team understands that communication is everyone’s responsibility. This includes the CFO, HR lead, the analyst, the assistant. Everyone has to participate. Make that clear to teams and especially to your leaders.
The strategy, style and positioning lies with the communicators, the content comes from the business, the execution depends on the topic and a balanced partnership is critical for success.
Change the Channel
Think critically about what type of communication is relevant in a situation – and delegate. Use the big channel to allow people to acknowledge concerns, share big strategic changes and celebrate wins. Then detail out what needs to be one-on-one, in small groups or by email or other channels.
Don’t tell 1000 people that their jobs are at risk over an email. Don’t share extremely detailed, complex messages on a webcast.
So Back to Wellness... And Making It Personal
You have a lot of wisdom to share with your team. Tell them what helps you and what you struggle with. What’s the hardest thing about this time for you? What’s the best part? How do you prevent burnout? How do you know when it’s too much and when you need a break? Share what works for you.
Communicating in Crisis Case: Arnes Sorenson of Marriot Hotels
‘Because of the profound impact COVID-19 is having on so many of us around the world, this is the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together.’ – CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson.
The best example I’ve seen recently of communicating in a crisis is this extremely thoughtful and moving video the CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson, made for his employees recently.
Right from the beginning, the title, ‘A Message from Arne,’ is personal. It shows that his employees are on a first name basis with him, and that he is approachable. In the video, he shares information about his health and makes a joke about his appearance, bald because of chemotherapy.
Quickly the focus shifts to the company and the employees and how they have been affected by Corona. By relating to them he shows his humanity and by steering the message away from himself, his humility.
The strongest moment is when he gets choked up at the end, sharing how hard this has been for him, and is a genuine glimpse of how much he cares about the people he leads. This is the type of sincerity, candor and clarity every employee wants. He is inspiring. His vulnerability and honesty, inspire customers, employees and complete strangers to reach out to him.
The video has well over 16,000 shares. Ross Hoffman, former Chief Business Officer of Headspace (a company that is all about employee wellness), tweeted:
“Leadership: marriott ceo, battling pancreatic cancer, addresses 150k+ global employees. Announces he is taking no salary and cutting exec pay by 50%. Expresses vulnerability & genuine care for every employee and their mission. Who wouldn’t run through a wall for this guy?”
You don’t need to be battling cancer or on the verge of closing the doors of your business to inspire your team. You do need to bring the humanity and honesty you carry in your private relationships into your work ones.
Continue the Dialogue (Not a Monologue)
So how does this translate into big changes in your own company? Constant follow-up is everything. I guarantee the Marriott comms team had an entire strategy in place to follow up his message. For Sorenson’s message to really take hold, it couldn’t stand alone. It needed the support of managers up and down the line, HR teams and all forms of communication.
If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that you can’t always tell what the future will bring. You may be caught by surprise, without a plan. If there is a commitment to communicate with honesty and humility on a regular basis, then you will be ready when the need arises.
You don’t need to have a perfectly engineered plan ready January 1 or the day after a crisis hits. But in the case of the unexpected, you do need to have a comms strategy aligned with your corporate one so there is consistency in your messaging.
And don’t forget the feedback: the circle that keeps on giving. When you have real dialogue, you learn what your teams think and feel. This can inform your communication choices.
The wellbeing of your team depends on timely, appropriate and honest communication. The right kind of communication will help prevent costly burnout, keep your team focused and productive and avoid destructive rumors.
Andrea A.Dixon/Dixon Media
Andrea Dixon is an American journalist and creative director based in Amsterdam. The first half of her career she worked as a photojournalist for large daily newspapers in the USA before following her dream of living in Paris. The last ten years she’s worked as an independent consultant and owner of Dixon Media, a boutique communication and creative agency specializing in communication strategy, creative concepts, (copy)writing, art direction, branding, photography, and events. Her major clients include Philips, Heineken, CRH, AkzoNobel and Greenpeace.
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