Managers: Be Upfront with Staff to Build Workplace Resilience

New study shows experience with COVID-19 makes people stronger

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer November 11, 2020
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​A new pandemic-related study found that workplace resilience—how employees respond to obstacles—is developed when managers and senior leadership keep employees informed about organizational challenges and the near-term future of the business.

Workplace engagement expert Marcus Buckingham, head of the ADP Research Institute, surveyed 26,500 Marcus Buckinghamemployees from 25 countries in June to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace. Buckingham revealed results of the study at the HR Technology Conference and Exposition held virtually Oct. 27-30.

The main conclusions were that workers' resilience levels around the world are low— just 17 percent of workers overall from the surveyed countries were shown to be highly resilient—but resilience increases with direct, personal experience with the coronavirus.

"We humans do better psychologically when we deal with reality head-on," Buckingham said. "We do not need senior leadership to sugarcoat things and pretend that things will go back to normal. People need facts, not blithe reassurance. Their well-being is preserved, not diminished, when they can see the reality of the situation and respond to it, rather than when it is hidden from them or unknown."

He added that the realization should be eye-opening for managers. Mollifying employees or being vague about what is happening during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic "will not make them feel better," he said. "When people know what is happening, they can build resilience, overcome fear and access their capacity."

The ADP Research Institute came up with a series of questions to measure resilience at work, including questions about autonomy, the ability to compartmentalize, the ability to find strength in work, optimism about the future, and whether or not managers and senior leaders are trusted. Survey participants were also asked how they had personally been affected by COVID-19, what workplace changes they had experienced and which of those changes they thought would become permanent.

"We were able to calculate which employees are highly resilient—demonstrating agency and the ability to compartmentalize, while feeling psychological safety and demonstrating trust in their leaders' ability to anticipate the future, communicate and follow through on commitments," Buckingham said.

His prediction going into the project was that the respondents from countries that had responded most effectively to the pandemic, such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, would display the most resilience, while workers from countries more severely impacted by the virus like Brazil, India and the United States would show comparatively lower levels of resilience.

"To my surprise, this thesis did not hold up," he said. The countries with the highest percentage of highly resilient employees were India (32 percent), Saudi Arabia (26 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (24 percent), followed by the United States (16 percent).

The countries with the lowest percentage of highly resilient employees were South Korea, Sweden and Taiwan (all with 8 percent).

The data showed that there was no statistically significant difference in resilience based on factors such as gender or age. But one variant factor made a big difference—more direct experience with COVID-19 led to higher resilience.

If someone responded that he or she had had COVID-19, cared for a loved one with the virus, or knew a friend or work colleague with it, that individual was three times more likely to be highly resilient than someone who didn't. If the respondent answered "yes" to all the COVID-19 impact questions, he or she was four times more likely to be highly resilient.

Experiencing workplace changes and disruptions, such as the use of protective gear, sudden remote work, and layoffs or furloughs, also led to high resilience.

"Workers who experienced at least five changes at work were 13 times more likely to be highly resilient," Buckingham said.

The experience of change also influenced expectations for the future of work. The more changes workers experienced, the more likely they were to predict that such changes would become permanent.

The study also found that while employee engagement and resilience are related, they are independent of one another. "You can be highly resilient but not very engaged, and very engaged but not very resilient," he said.

There's one thing managers can do to build both engagement and resilience, Buckingham added: "If things are changing quickly, like the year we just experienced with COVID-19, an antidote to that is frequent check-ins. Ask your employees at least weekly, 'What are you working on?' and 'How can I help you?' "

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