Returning to the Workplace? Don’t Lose Sight of Your People Leaders

As I wrote in my blog on empathetic leadership, one positive emerging from the pandemic is that it has refocused attention on human needs—from health and wellness, to financial security. Many employees have struggled psychologically and financially, and employers have responded.

But as we consider the future of work, including how and when to return to the workplace, we also need to consider the impact on people leaders and how to support them through the transition.

Returning to the Workplace? Don’t Lose Sight of Your People Leaders

Under Pressure

When employees are feeling stressed, leaders often bear the burden, too. Research conducted in April 2021 by MetLife found managers were 41% more likely to report feeling depressed and 14% more likely to report feeling burned out, compared to the same period in 2020.

These issues are now starting to show in employment trends. A July 2021 survey from Deloitte Canada and LifeWorks found just over half (51%) of senior leaders are considering leaving, retiring or downshifting from their current organization or position due to decreased mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly a quarter (23%) are considering resigning, while others are contemplating a less demanding role (16%), retiring (15%), taking a leave of absence (13%) or moving to part-time work (6%). The most common reasons? Increased mental stress or strain at work (38%), and feeling underappreciated (22%).

Challenges of the New Hybrid Workplace

As Canadian organizations start implementing their return-to-the-workplace strategies, it’s likely going to get worse for leaders before it gets better. While employers might be ready to go back, their employees may not be on the same page. According to a recent EY Canada survey, more than half (54%) of Canadian employees would quit if their current flexibility in schedule and work location isn’t extended.

What employees are really asking for is more control over how and when they work. After more than a year of being able to duck out for a medical appointment, help kids with virtual school or throw in a load of laundry, we’re not so keen to go back to the highly regimented workdays of the past.

To address this desire for flexibility, many organizations are contemplating a hybrid approach that includes both remote and onsite work. But that poses additional challenges for managers. How do you maintain a cohesive team in a hybrid work environment? How do you give people control over their schedules while also maximizing in-person interactions? Most of all, how do you balance employees’ expectations with the employer’s needs while fostering an engaging and productive work environment for everyone?

3 Tips to Support People Leaders

Moving to a new work model is never easy, but here are a few tips to keep your leaders engaged through the transition:

1) Keep them in the loop. Change can be stressful, and employees will naturally have questions on how returning to the workplace impacts them. As much as possible, keep your people leaders in the know. Arm them with Q&As and other communications to help them more confidently handle questions from their direct reports and other staff.

2) Show your appreciation. Extra paid time off (or “mental health days”) can give employees a much-needed break to rest and recharge. However, rewards don’t necessarily have to have a financial impact to be valued: in fact, 2016 research by Dan Ariely found that compliments are a top motivator of productivity. But when we are busy and stressed, we may simply forget to say, “Thank you; you’re doing a great job.”

3) Provide training and resources. When employees are dealing with mental health issues, for example, leaders might not know what to say and may avoid having a difficult conversation, out of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Training is critical. So is access to the right resources. There is a wealth of useful information out there (often available free of charge) from employee assistance programs and other providers, government websites, and organizations such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada or the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). People leaders also need to know it’s ok to ask for help themselves, if they are struggling.

The Future of Work

Whatever decisions your organization is making about returning to the workplace, it’s becoming clear that the work environment of the future will look a lot different than it did prepandemic. To facilitate a smooth transition and promote strong mental health, people leaders need to be acknowledged, equipped and informed. The more you can support your leaders, the better positioned they will be to support others—and themselves.

[Related Reading: With an Eye on the Future, Employers Shift Benefit Priorities]


Alyssa Hodder
Director, Education and Outreach – Canada

Canadian Employer Outlook Virtual Conference

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