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Why 'How Are You?' is Such an Important Question Right Now

November 25 2020 - Employee engagement technology expert Steven Buck discusses how to embark on necessary but difficult conversations with the team.

Glint has just released results about global employee burnout. Looking at aggregated data from 1.75 million employee engagement surveys carried out this year, 5.41% of employees provided free-text comments that spoke to fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and other warning burnout signals. By contrast, January's reading was just 4.08%. The past two years have averaged 4.12% - a 33% rate rise.

According to the data, this is in uncharted employee-burnout territory. And because free-text comments capture only part of the burnout experience at work, the full number of people feeling exhausted, ineffective, and disconnected from work is probably considerably higher. People worldwide have been coping with a range of hardships this year, including a pandemic, social isolation, enforced working from home, school disruptions and major layoffs.

How can HR leaders respond? If you're a people leader feeling overwhelmed by your employees' needs, our recommendation is to start with one of the most straightforward habits to help your employees rebuild connections and best direct their energy: conversations.

Conversations allow us to develop a shared understanding, encourage creativity, and help us to make decisions. One-to-one conversations are critical for making sure that people are not only focused on the right things, but also getting the support they need within the team.

At work, conversations range from more personal 'How are you?' enquiries to more formal conversations about work matters - and both are important for individual and organisational health and effectiveness. But as common as conversations are, it's rare for them to be as thoughtful and consistent as they need to be. And because we are all working remotely, making sure those conversations happen frequently means we have to be more deliberate about ensuring they take place.

'How are you?': a vital HR question

As we're all having to negotiate a world health crisis right now, it's really important that managers start by simply finding out how people are doing. While we're working digitally, it's harder to pick up on cues like body language, so we have to pose that question to understand how someone is managing. Well known global HR thought leader Josh Bersin has talked about this idea of a check-in not being about micromanaging your team, but about building relationships by being aware of what's going on for the individual.

In our current situation of unprecedented employee burnout territory, it's important for managers to acknowledge that there's a strong likelihood that employees' attention will have shifted to other parts of their lives. They may have health concerns or challenges that make it hard to focus at work or balance competing priorities. So it's important to check in, first and foremost, on how people are doing, and in a genuine and thoughtful way, rather than immediately move to a discussion of work priorities.

Many of us can't say, 'Let's grab a coffee' to connect with a colleague, and scheduling time for these discussions may seem slightly artificial. Nonetheless, it's vital that we have these discussions if we are to improve our work lives and relationships.

It's also important for leaders, managers, and team members to be able to acknowledge the challenges we are all experiencing at present. The reality is that we are all struggling and that needs to be acknowledged, especially by the leadership team. Leaders need to be open and transparent about their own challenges, so that everyone feels comfortable about discussing their own issues.

Our research also shows employees' sense of connection at work has declined significantly in recent months. Some 37% now feel less connected to their colleagues, and 31% feel less connected to their leaders. Companies with the least erosion in this sense of 'connectedness' show markedly lower rates of burnout signals than those where feelings of isolation are more intense. Employees who say their employer is helping them feel connected are four times more likely to report feeling well supported.

So finding ways for the team to connect and address the needs of the whole person rather than focusing solely on work priorities is more important than ever. Consistent, thoughtful conversations between manager and employee will help your organisation support each employee as they work through their individual circumstances.

Employees who have regular conversations with their managers say they're better able to do their work and take care of themselves. And the data shows that employees with a strong sense of connection are over six times more likely to be engaged, which has a magnifying impact on overall business delivery.

Today, ask everyone you meet on Zoom how they really are. And then keep on doing it.

About the author

Steven Buck

Stephen Buck is Head of People Science, EMEA at employee engagement leader Glint, part of LinkedIn.


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