Here’s how to express empathetic curiosity about your workers, without seeming like a snoop.
During a recent video meeting, one of our star employees appeared to be struggling. She was uncharacteristically reserved and distracted. Her contributions were also scattered, when she’s usually precise and outspoken. COVID-19 has turned life upside down for many of us, and pandemic fatigue is real. But there’s a difference between having a bad day and something more serious. I wondered how to check on her without being intrusive.
Supporting employee wellness is not always easy. Between lockdowns, reshuffled family responsibilities, and ever-changing health news, our pre-COVID-19 strategies aren’t necessarily effective right now. Our current work days may not be “normal,” but we can adapt and apply new techniques to help our teams through the good times and the bad.
For me, I’m thrilled the pandemic is shining a light on mental health. More people are talking about critical topics like stress, anxiety, resilience, and burnout. Complete wellness also includes more components. According to a Gallup study, conducted globally, well-being has five interconnected elements:
Career: Working and other activities you do every day
Social: Having strong relationships and love
Financial: Managing your money
Community: Engaging with your locality
Physical: Maintaining good health and energy to get things done
Unfortunately, just 1 in 14 U.S. employees is thriving in all five areas—and this statistic was reported before the pandemic. Chances are even fewer people would say they’re flourishing across the board.
Leaders should never pry into employees’ personal lives, yet many of us fail to connect at all. In recent global study, almost 40% of employees said no one at their organization had asked them if they were okay. These same respondents were 38% more likely than others to say their mental health had declined since the pandemic began. If you’re not sure how to check on your team members in a way that feels both empathetic and appropriate, consider these five strategies.
Model Vulnerability and Self-Care
Talking about your own struggles is essential if you want to maintain a supportive and caring work environment during crises like COVID-19. “First, acknowledge that people will be anxious, vulnerable, and disoriented. And so are you,” says psychiatrist Gianpiero Petriglieri. “Don’t just pretend that things are normal. Share your experience, invite people to share theirs, and make that behavior normal.”
Likewise as a manager, you need to walk the talk. At my company, I ask my employees not to work on evenings or weekends, and I do the same. I also encourage regular vacations—even if they’re staycations for now. I frequently take time off with my family, and I make sure to promote real downtime with our team.
Ask Inquisitive (Not Generic) Questions
In a professional context, we’ve been trained to respond to, “how are you?” with a robotic, “fine, thanks.” Most people usually answer this way no matter how we actually feel. Encouraging someone to share the truth requires different questions, writes speaker and communication coach Deborah Grayson Riegel in Harvard Business Review. For example, you could ask a second time with a little emphasis, with a “how are you reallydoing?” Or press for another reply by asking, “what did you do last night?” or “what are you looking forward to today?”
“You could also try, ‘would you tell me if and when you’re not fine?’ because I’m available to talk,’” says Grayson Riegle.
Absorbing and later referencing details is another way to deepen conversations. “The goal isn’t to pry, it’s to let someone know that you’re paying attention, and that you care enough to follow up. If someone wants to talk—they’ll let you know,” she says.
Engage in Reflective Listening
Most of us think we’re good listeners, but we’re often lost in thought while the other person is speaking. Or we’re busy crafting a response instead of letting their words sink in. Reflective listening means paying close attention to both the content and the feelings someone shares with you. It might feel a little awkward at first, but it works—especially in the two-dimensional world of video.
The key is to focus completely on the other person. Hear what they say, listen for their tone of voice, and watch their body language and gestures. Most importantly, remain silent until they’re done, and resist the temptation to offer advice. Next, reflect back what you heard to ensure it’s accurate. Ask follow-up questions and only weigh in if they ask for advice.
Promote the Health Maintenance Days
One silver lining of the pandemic is a renewed call to take physical and mental health symptoms seriously. Even once we’re free to gather in person, let’s stop dragging ourselves to the office when we’re sick, and spreading illness in the process. Sick days should be a given. And in that vein, so could “unsick days,” a time-off campaign launched by Zocdoc, which encourages companies to give staff at least one day off per year to visit the dentist, go for an eye exam, seek counseling, or do anything that improves their health and well-being.
Encourage Wellness Goals
Even if your team is doing okay, there’s always room to feel better. Most people have made career goals; why not set wellness goals? These shouldn’t be prescriptive, like asking everyone to walk 10,000 steps a day. Instead, employees should pick a personal objective like logging more sleep, eating extra vegetables, or tackling a financial task. They can make it public or keep the goal to themselves. Either way, you can support them by creating timelines and offering rewards to everyone who hits their targets.